Boat, snowmobile, camel: Vaccine reaches world’s far corners

After enduring 40-knot winds and freezing sea spray, jostled health care providers arrived wet and cold on two Maine islands in the North Atlantic late last month to conduct coronavirus vaccinations.

As they came ashore on Little Cranberry Island, population 65, residents danced with excitement.

Its a historic day for the island, said Kaitlyn Miller, who joined a friend in belting out Im not giving away my shot! from the Broadway show Hamilton when the crew arrived.

Around the world, it is taking extra effort and ingenuity to ensure the vaccine gets to remote locations. That means shipping it by boat to islands, by snowmobile to Alaska villages and via complex waterways through the Amazon in Brazil. Before its over, drones, motorcycles, elephants, horses and camels will have been used to deliver it to the worlds far corners, said Robin Nandy, chief of immunization for UNICEF.

This is unprecedented in that were trying to deliver a new vaccine to every country in the world in the same calendar year, he said.

Nurses Kathy Cheney, wearing a hat, and Maureen Giffen huddle on a wet and windy ride aboard a lobster boat on the way to set up a Covid-19 vaccination clinic (AP Photo)

Although the vaccination rollout has been choppy in much of the world and some places are still waiting for their first doses, theres an urgent push to inoculate people in hard-to-reach places that may not have had Covid-19 outbreaks but also may not be well equipped to deal with them if they do.

Its a race against the clock, said Sharon Daley, medical director of the Maine Seacoast Mission, which is providing shots on seven islands off the Maine coast.

And though coronavirus vaccinations can present unique challenges, including adequate refrigeration, health care providers are fortunate to have an infrastructure in place through the systems they use to conduct childhood vaccinations for measles and other diseases, Nandy said.

In the rough and roadless terrain of southwestern Alaska, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. chartered planes and used snowmobiles this winter to deliver the vaccine to nearly four dozen villages spread out over an area the size of Oregon.

Village Service Chief Dr Elizabeth Roll holds a Covid-19 vaccine in Napakiak, Alaska (AP Photo)

The vaccination effort there began in December when temperatures still hovered around minus 20 or minus 30 Fahrenheit (minus 20 to minus 34 Celsius) and workers had to ensure the vaccine didnt freeze in the syringes needles. Despite the challenges, the health corporation delivered thousands of doses to 47 villages in a month. In one village, residents were anguished after Covid-19 killed one person and sickened two others, including the local health worker.

People were just really desperate to get vaccinated there, and it was pretty emotional to just kind of be able to bring something to them, to protect them, said Dr Ellen Hodges, the health corporations chief of staff.

In India, workers recently trekked to the tiny village of Bahakajari, a village along the mighty Brahmaputra River in the remote north-eastern state of Assam, to start vaccinating its nearly 9,000 residents.

Read | Data shows drastic fall in Covid-19 tests is helping Bengal, Assam keep their numbers low

The vaccines were first sent to the nearest town, Morigaon before they were driven the final leg by car. People from on a nearby island were brought to the health centre by boat, and women in bright sarees and men lined up to get vaccinated. By the end of the day, 67 had received a shot, with officials planning to vaccinate 800 more within the next three days.

Elderly women wait to register for a Covid-19 vaccine in Bahakajari village in an interior part of Indian northeastern state of Assam, India (AP Photo)

In Brazil, remote Amazon communities presented a challenge that meant traveling for hours on small planes and boats. Like many remote locales, getting the vaccine to the villages was important because most jungle communities have only basic medical facilities that arent equipped to treat severe Covid-19 cases.

Just like in other parts of the world, including the U.S., health care workers had to overcome the challenge of persuading some villagers that it was safe and important to get the shot.

Vaccine hesitancy is a complex issue and its extremely important that high-quality information is provided to all groups within society, said a spokesperson for the public-private partnership GAVI, formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which is focused on improving vaccinations in poor countries.

Health workers leave a home after a resident denied to be vaccinated against the new coronavirus in Brazil (AP Photo)

In Maine, there was a relief when the century-old Seacoast Mission took on the task of getting the vaccine to the islands.

For islanders, getting to the mainland in the best of circumstances wouldve meant a day-long trip to get the vaccine. Rough weather can delay ferries and mailboats, leaving residents stuck for days. And some are too infirm to travel.

Life on the islands is remote. And its isolated. And I think that isolation is both the attraction but the heart of the challenge, said John Zavodny, the Seacoast Missions president.

On a recent day, it was too windy to take the missions boat thats equipped with medical gear, so a smaller one was used. The team also commandeered a lobster boat for the short trip to Little and Great Cranberry Islands.

Nurse Sharon Daley carries a cooler of Covid-19 vaccinations as she and her staff begin a journey to inoculate island residents in Maine (AP Photo)

Islanders are used to a certain degree of isolation, but this winter was particularly tough on Little Cranberry Island because the community couldnt even hold its potluck suppers or other regular gatherings due to coronavirus restrictions, said Lindsay Eysnogle, who teaches five children on the island ranging from pre-K to second grade.

The vaccine provides hope that islanders can resume something akin to normalcy.

Omigosh we are so thrilled, she said. This will provide relief from the level of isolation that were unaccustomed to out here. Its just a relief.

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