Larry Daugherty of Eagle River is carrying hope on the Iditarod Trail. It comes in a box.
Daugherty, a radiation oncologist, is carrying empty packages of the COVID-19 vaccine as a symbol of the hope he sees a year into a global pandemic that gained full force during last year’s Iditarod.
“I just think it’s phenomenal that science has given us this vaccine so quickly,” Daugherty said Sunday at Deshka Landing while making last-minute preparations before beginning the race. “We now thanks to these rapid developments have hope for a better world than this whole crazy we’ve been living for the last year.”
Once upon a time he had visions of carrying real doses of the vaccine and delivering it by dog sled to Nome -- a homage to the 1925 serum run that delivered life-saving antitoxins in the midst of a diphtheria outbreak. In fact, his official race bio speaks of plans for presenting the vaccine to the mayor of Shageluk, a checkpoint in Alaska’s Interior.
“A lot of things have happened since then,” Daugherty said. “First of all, we’re not going to Nome.” Or Shageluk. The race was rerouted to keep mushers and officials out of villages along the Yukon River and Norton Sound coast.
For another, the Indian Health Service “has been really efficient with delivery of vaccine to the villages,” he said. “My understanding is every Native along the trail that wants the vaccine has been offered the vaccine.”
He finished 63rd in his rookie run in 2016 and moved up in each of his next two races (44th in 2017 and 40th in 2018). He scratched in Kaltag last year, and when he left the trail he re-entered a world changed drastically by COVID-19.
“We came back to a world with no toilet paper on the shelves,” he said.
When he returned to work at the Anchorage Radiation Oncology Center, it was to the news that national experts were urging health care providers to delay treatment as long as possible.
“We were having to make some difficult decisions: What’s more of a risk to you right now? Is it COVID-19 or is it your cancer? And back then we didn’t know,” Daugherty said. “I think we’ve become a bit more comfortable making those decisions.”