Alaska Airlines transports lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine safely to rural regions of Alaska

Keri Zimmer, Kodiak Station Manager unloading the COVID-19 vaccine in Kodiak, Alaska. Photos by Ingrid Barrentine

Deborah Gantos, a Cargo Air Freight CSA at Alaska Airlines in Anchorage, hasn’t seen her son since February due to her autoimmune condition and the coronavirus.

This week, she was part of a historic turning point in the state’s battle with COVID-19 as some of the first vaccines were delivered to frontline healthcare workers via Alaska Airlines and other distributors, reaching some of the most rural communities in the state.

Deborah Gantos, Air Freight CSA

“This is a really big deal seeing all the vaccines come through here,” Gantos said, who assisted with the verification process of the shipment. “I’m very excited about the vaccine so I can feel good about visiting my son or other family members and for other people to have access to it so we can slow down the death rate—I am very excited about that. I look forward to getting mine soon.”

Alaska Air Cargo worked closely with pharmaceutical and cargo partners, as well as, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to organize and ensure the safe travels of the critical shipment, which included thousands of doses of the vaccine for health care facilities, leading to the first vaccinations of Alaskans this week.

Pfizer Inc. designed special shipping containers packed with dry ice that are capable of maintaining an ultra-cold temperature for up to 30 days as long as the dry ice is replenished upon receipt and every five days thereafter.

The state of Alaska is unique in that 80% of communities are only accessible by air or water and most vaccines must be distributed by plane. Alaska Airlines has been transporting critical medication and cargo to the state of Alaska for 88 years—in many ways serving as a lifeline to more than 20 communities in the state.

As the largest scheduled carrier in the state, our cargo team is proud to transport COVID-19 vaccines to destinations across Alaska, as part of this historic, global effort,” said Torque Zubeck, managing director of Alaska Air Cargo.

Rural communities run the risk of getting hit harder by the virus.

Since the surge of COVID cases across the country, there’s been an ongoing effort in the state of Alaska to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in smaller communities where access to large-scale hospitals, critical medication and essential goods are not easily accessible. Rural counties run the risk of a disproportionately high death toll compared to large counties.

The shipping containers include a temperature and tracking device that will ensure the vaccine was kept safe during transport.

In her role with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), a healthcare organization that serves over 50 rural communities in southwest Alaska, Tiffany Zulkosky is helping to educate people statewide for broader vaccine distribution. The vaccines, she said, are “monumental,” for parts of rural Alaska.

In this state, particularly in our region (Bethel), we’re so connected with cultural values rooted in family and connection. For our tribes and residents, we can see how the COVID-19 pandemic has really altered the way our society engages with one another, which makes it particularly difficult for our communities.” Zulkosky said. “I think we feel a sense of hope with the COVID-19 vaccine and how it will help us find some sense of normalcy even if it’s a new sense of normalcy in the coming months and coming year.

Following the first shipment of the vaccine, some health care workers began receiving vaccinations this week at hospitals and health care facilities. We know this is the first of many shipments to come, and we are ready to scale our operation as additional vaccines are produced and ready for distribution.

Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center security department caregivers deliver a box of COVID-19 vaccine to the facility on Tuesday, Dec. 15, after it was picked up from Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport.

During this time of uncertainty, air travel continues to be an essential service. Alaska Airlines remains committed to helping medical professionals and lifesaving supplies get to the places where they are needed most. The health and safety of our guests, employees and communities is a responsibility we take to heart and show each and every day.

Learn more about our Next-Level Care.

Our passenger and freighter fleet played a role in the safe movement of life-saving vaccines to remote locations throughout Alaska.