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COVID-19 Pfizer Vaccines Land In Bethel

People in Bethel will begin receiving the region’s first doses of the coronavirus vaccine on Dec. 17. The initial doses will go to residents and workers of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Elder’s Home, and to health care workers who treat people who might have the virus. Nearly 3,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in Bethel on Dec. 16. KYUK was at the Bethel airport, waiting with the passengers preparing to get on board, as the night jet arrived with one of the shipments.

Standing in the terminal, the plane is running slightly behind schedule. Passengers are wearing their masks and lined up, not quite 6 feet apart, to board the plane once it’s unloaded. One of those passengers is Connie Sankwich. She said that she’s ready to take the vaccine as soon as possible.

“I’m a cancer survivor, and I have complications as a result of chemo,” Sankwich said. “In fact, I’m going in for a doctor’s appointment tonight.”

Further down the line, another passenger, Chris Aparicio, is also ready to take the vaccine. 

“If it slows it down, keeps people from dying and keeps people from spreading it, it’s a good thing,” Aparicio said. “Things got to return back to normal.”

Normal for him means reliable work in construction.

“I’ve probably lost six months of work this year. Six months of income. Puts me behind on my bills and took money out of my savings. Hurts my family,” Aparicio said.

Another man in line, who didn’t want to give his name, also said that the vaccine was a good thing, but he isn’t going to take it. He said that he doesn’t take the flu vaccine and won’t take this coronavirus vaccine either, but he supports people who want to get it.

“Everyone is built different, immune system-wise, so hopefully it helps them out,” he said.

The woman next to him also never gets the flu shot. Her name is Michelle, and because she’s a nurse at the hospital, she didn’t want to give her last name.

“I’ve had a lot of patients that have passed from the COVID; young ones,” Michelle said.

She said that she does plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and as a front-line healthcare worker, she soon could, but she’s going to hold off.

“I want to personally do my own research,” she said. “This vaccine just came out in the last six months. This COVID thing has only been around for a year.”

Outside, the plane carrying the vaccines begins approaching. The jet touches down around 7:30 p.m. On board are two boxes holding the Pfizer coronavirus vaccines, and one holding dry ice. Workers with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation pick up the boxes from Alaska Airlines cargo. Writing on top of the boxes says: "COVID-19 Vaccine. Rush. Perishable. Please notify addressee immediately."

A forklift carries the boxes across the room to a blue health corporation SUV waiting outside, and in a few moments the vaccines are loaded inside the vehicle. The vehicle drives to the YKHC administrative building. Inside, the vaccines go up the elevator to the third floor to a room with a giant white freezer able to store the vaccines at the required ultra-cold temperature of -94 degrees Fahrenheit.

The YKHC workers put on white gowns, masks, goggles, and gloves before cutting open the box, taking out thick layers of packaging material. Then, in a coordinated motion, one person lifts out the tray of vaccines while her coworker opens the large freezer door. Finally, the doses of coronavirus vaccine are safely inside after months of loss and grief, of sickness and death from this virus.

YKHC plans to begin vaccinations Dec. 17.

Anna Rose MacArthur served as KYUK's News Director from 2015-2022.
Katie Baldwin Basile is an independent photographer and multimedia storyteller from Bethel, Alaska.
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