‘The New Balto’: Alaska’s fight against COVID-19 takes to the skies

SPONSORED: Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to rural Alaska means contending with weather delays, vast distances, and time constraints.

Presented by Ravn Alaska

On Jan. 27, a Ravn Alaska aircraft touched down in gusty winter weather on Saint Paul Island, a Bering Sea community nearly 300 miles from Alaska’s mainland.

Aboard the flight that day, a beacon of hope had arrived: An employee from Southcentral Foundation who hand-carried the community’s second batch of COVID-19 vaccines.

“I don’t call them Ravn,” said Angus MacGreigor, director of Beechtree Molecular and Beechtree Diagnostics.”I call them the New Balto.”

Balto is the celebrated Siberian Husky who led his dog team on the last stretch of the 1925 diphtheria run to Nome. On that famous journey, medicine was delivered to rural Alaska against all odds and when nobody else could fill the gap.

Today, Alaskans are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine via airplane, boat, and snowmachine, and it’s all thanks to a coalition of providers working together to safely get shots in arms despite vast distances, notorious weather delays, and daunting time constraints.

All the hard work has paid off, as Alaska leads the nationwide vaccination effort with one in seven residents vaccinated.

As a lifeline for many communities, aviation plays a unique role in bringing tests and vaccines to rural Alaska. But with that role comes the added responsibility to prevent the virus’ spread in isolated towns such as Saint Paul, which remains without a single community spread case of COVID-19 to date.

‘Everyone got the phone call’

Beechtree opened in Anchorage in March 2019 and quickly found its focus expanding from toxicology to include COVID-19 testing, MacGreigor said. In July, the company began building a dedicated COVID-19 lab. The entire permitting and building process was completed in just 90 days, with construction ongoing seven days a week in two shifts until the lab was complete.

Now Beechtree’s turnaround time for COVID-19 tests is just 24 hours, even for remote locations like Dutch Harbor and Saint Paul. Air transportation is crucial in making that happen, MacGreigor said.

“The linchpin -- the critical linchpin -- is Ravn. We couldn’t do it without Ravn,” MacGreigor said.

With roughly 82 percent of Alaska communities disconnected from the contiguous road system, airplanes provide a lifeline for basic services like medical travel, grocery delivery, and now, the delivery of vaccines.

“Much like the Marine Highway System, we’re part of the infrastructure,” said Ravn Alaska Director of Sales and Marketing Richard Cole. “For a lot of these communities, we are the only way to get in and out on the same day.”

Ravn also offers free flights for cancer patients, and it delivered water to Tuluksak after the town suffered a devastating fire.

“That’s part of being a member of the community,” Cole said.

Ravn Alaska resumed passenger service late last year after new owners overhauled the airline’s operations. The company now has around 300 employees and serves 12 communities, from Kenai to Dutch Harbor, and as far north as Fairbanks.

“We are so thrilled to be back in the air,” Cole said.

For Ravn, the vaccine shipments represented both a responsibility and opportunity to serve the state.

“When the first batch showed up, everyone got the phone call,” Cole said. The whole team knew ‘this is a big deal,’” he said.

But sometimes flights don’t go as planned. Bering Sea and Aleutian communities are notorious for weather delays. In Saint Paul, localized winds can gust up to 90 miles per hour, said Saint Paul City Manager Phillip Zavadil.

Weather delays can cause major problems, especially for vaccines that must be kept in cold storage, or COVID-19 test swabs that are only viable for a short period of time.

When delays happen, Ravn relies on a long list of procedures to ensure safe shipment, including calling on other airlines to help if needed, Cole said.

“Everybody in the industry is doing what they can to get it out there,” Cole said.

Keeping Saint Paul safe

Throughout the pandemic, Saint Paul Island has held onto a precious statistic: The city of around 370 has not had a single community case of the virus.

“We are COVID-free to date,” said Zavadil.

Saint Paul has put rigorous policies in place to protect its residents. The city has had a non-essential travel ban in place since May. Travelers who fly in must have a recent negative COVID test and they must quarantine upon arrival. Masks are required for public areas like the Aleut Community Store or the local post office.

Ravn has developed a special process for flights to Saint Paul, which begins with verifying a negative COVID test when booking a flight and continues at multiple checkpoints during the journey.

“At every step of the way there’s something in place to make sure that we are being careful with the health of the island,” Cole said. “It is uniquely isolated, and because of that their concerns are very real. We take the responsibility of helping ensure their safety pretty seriously.”

With these measures in place, the community has avoided harsher restrictions and hunkering down, Zavadil said. School is in session. Very few people work from home. While large gatherings are on hold, families still gather and spend time together.

“With all the work the Saint Paul Island Unified Command has done to protect the community, we have the freedom, the luxuries that some other communities don’t have,” Zavadil said.

“For me, I just feel lucky that we can go to work, kids can attend school, and the snow crab fishery can take place, and know all the hard work we put in to protect our community has paid off,” Zavadil said.

Playing a role in maintaining that protection is a weighty responsibility. But Cole said Ravn aims to bring the same level of vigilance and consideration to every flight, whether carrying passengers, cargo or precious doses of vaccine.

“Everything we do is important to somebody,” Cole said. “There’s always something valuable and essential on every flight.”

Ravn Alaska serves communities across the state with passenger, freight and charter air service. Learn more, book a trip, or suggest a new route at www.ravnalaska.com.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Sponsor. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.