On the floor of the U.S. Senate this week (March 5th, 2021), Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) recognized Dr. Ellen Hodges and Dr. Elizabeth Bates, both of Bethel, for leading the nationally-renowned COVID-19 vaccination effort in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska. Under the leadership of Drs. Hodges and Bates, vaccines are being distributed to roughly 50 remote villages in the region by any means necessary, including dogsleds, snow machines, small planes and boats. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Alaska has the highest share of its residents who’ve received at least a single dose of the vaccine among all of the states, currently at about 24%. Senator Sullivan recognized the doctors as part of his series, “Alaskan of the Week.”
TRIBUTE TO DR. ELLEN HODGES AND ELIZABETH BATES
Madam President, it is that time of the week that our pages–when we had them–used to always look forward to. It is the time of the week that I come down on the floor and talk about someone in Alaska who is making a huge impact on my State, a lot of times for the country. These two Alaskans I am going to talk about actually have gotten national news for the great work they are doing, somebody we call our Alaskan of the Week. It is usually about a group of individuals, one, two, maybe a group of people who are helping make Alaska what, in my view, is the greatest State in the country–resilient, tough, generous, kind, unique.
Like so many States, this pandemic has really hit Alaska hard–tourism for sure. The oil and gas sector last year was really hit hard with low prices. Unfortunately, this year, with the Biden administration’s attacks on this sector of the United States and Alaska’s economy, it is tough; commercial fishing, tough. It has been a tough year economically. But an area of good news during the pandemic, one that I am very proud of for all of my constituents, involves how we in Alaska have responded on the health side. Vaccines, testing, death rates–we have consistently been the top State rated in all of these categories throughout the pandemic, which is kind of amazing given that we are a very, very big State with a very small population.
I know that so many Americans watching right now want to get back out, visit Alaska. Our Governor, Mike Dunleavy, recently tweeted:
With the best vaccination efforts [in the country] & some of the lowest COVID numbers in the country, Alaska is open for business..safe for travelers!
So come on, America, get back up to Alaska. Love to have you.
So this is all very true. Our vaccination efforts are viewed as the best in the United States of America, and the great lengths that so many in Alaska have gone through to make it so have captured the country’s imagination. These efforts just in the last couple of weeks have been featured all across the country–USA TODAY, “Good Morning America,” the Washington Post, the New York Times, a great piece by Bloomberg News, and so many others. So big thanks to the press corps, the national press corps, for featuring my State’s efforts and importantly the heroic work being done to distribute lifesaving vaccines to a State that is more than 2 1/2 times the size of Texas. Sorry there, Senator Cornyn, Senator Cruz. It is true.
Most of the geography of Alaska is dotted with small villages without roads in freezing-cold temperatures. I was in Fairbanks last weekend–just a couple of weeks ago in Fairbanks. It almost hit 40 below. That is cold.
All across Alaska, our healthcare workers are jumping on boats, single-prop airplanes, snow machines, and, yes, in a couple of cases, dog sleds to bring the vaccine and hope to their fellow Alaskans. And it shows.
As of a few days ago, close to 160,000 Alaskans had received at least their first vaccine dose. That is about 21 percent of our State’s population.
Now, in Southwest Alaska, what we called the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, or the YK Delta–those are two giant rivers that come together–these efforts have been particularly impressive. That is largely thanks to the amazing people at the YK Health Corporation, or YKHC, which is the YK Delta’s Tribal health provider. The whole organization, consisting of just about 90 healthcare professionals, serves around 28,000 people in the YK region, which is about the size of Oregon, so a huge area, not a lot of people.
Prior to the vaccine, the YK Delta had been stricken by COVID-19 with one of the highest infection rates in the country, in a very far-flung place in terms of the dispersal of the population. It is the efforts of two women there in the YK Delta, Drs. Ellen Hodges and Elizabeth Bates, who are our Alaskans of the Week, who have been in charge of getting the vaccine to roughly 50 remote villages in Southwestern Alaska. Spread out over a territory, as I said, about the size of Oregon, the village populations in the YK Delta range from about 1,200 people to as small as 10 in terms of population.
Let’s start with Dr. Hodges. She is the chief of staff at YKHC. She grew up in rural Minnesota. After graduating from the University of Minnesota Medical School, Dr. Hodges came to Anchorage as a resident in 2002, eventually making her way to Bethel, which is the hub village. It is a big community, the biggest in the YK Delta. She absolutely fell in love with the area. She said it has everything–very friendly people, authentic. It is beautiful. Soon enough, her patients turned into her family. Also soon enough, she was–according to Tricia Franklin, Alaska’s director of the State Office of Rural Health Division–”the go-to person for how things are working in rural communities” and how to get things done.
She worked in the emergency room tending cuts, bruises, broken bones. She delivered babies. She worked tirelessly to contain a number of tuberculosis outbreaks in the region. And then the virus hit, and as I mentioned, it hit the YK Delta region very hard with some of the highest COVID rates in America.
There are reasons for that: the multigenerational housing, very crowded housing in this region; communal lifestyle; and also–here is a big one, and it should be a shock for every American listening–about 50 percent of the households in this region of America lack running water. Let me say that again. Some of the most patriotic communities in the country, as Alaska Natives serve at higher rates in the military than any other ethnic group in the country, live in communities that don’t have running water or flushed toilets–American citizens.
It is wrong. It is wrong. And we need–we the U.S. Senate, Congress–to continue to work on this issue. How do you wash your hands five times a day, as the CDC wants you to do during the pandemic, when you don’t have running water or flushed toilets? We need to keep working on this. It is a disgrace, to be honest.
So what happened when COVID hit in this region? Because of a lack of sanitation and many other problems, precious lives were being lost. Elders, who are vital to pass on the traditional wisdom of the Native Alaskan culture and heritage, were being lost. Because of a lack of functioning sanitation, even young people, whom this virus doesn’t really impact, were starting to have respiratory illnesses and getting sick, and some were even dying. That is horrible. It was terrifying, particularly for an area that is still dealing with the multigenerational trauma of previous pandemics, particularly the Spanish flu of 1918, which in several Alaskan Native communities wiped out entire communities; 60, 70 percent mortally rates from that flu. So we needed to get to work fast, particularly in this region.
Enter another intrepid doctor and our Alaskan of the Week, Dr. Elizabeth Bates. Dr. Bates arrived in Bethel in December of 2018–just a little over 2 years ago–and she found a community that she loved. She had experience working in women’s health and infection control and emergency care and disaster relief. She has great experience across the country–really, across the world. As a doctor, she worked with patients during 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and has spent time even in refugee camps in Rwanda.
In Bethel, she was in charge of setting up testing centers for the region. Working hand in glove with Dr. Hodges, she started one of the first drive-through and airport testing sites in rural Alaska, much of it outside in the cold weather under tarps.
But we all know that testing alone, particularly, as I said, when people are living so closely together and don’t live in places where you can wash your hands frequently, wasn’t nearly enough. They tried everything–public service announcements, reaching out to villagers, helping them use bleach to sanitize. It was a 24/7 effort, but, as I said, it wasn’t enough. The virus was spreading rapidly. They were losing. People were dying.
Then on December 18, a few days before winter solstice–the darkest day of the year–hope came to Bethel, AK, because the first vaccines arrived. Thanks to the great work of so many scientists, government workers, private sector workers, Operation Warp Speed, the vaccine arrived on December 18 to the YK Delta. These two intrepid doctors I have been talking about cried. They had seen a lot of death and struggles in the region, and like a Christmas miracle, this vaccine arrived. They hugged each other, and then they got to work.
As I said, there are roughly 50 remote villages in the YK Delta spread out over a territory about the size of many States in our country–as a matter of fact, bigger than most States in our country–so they traveled on small planes, trucks, on ice roads, snow machines, dog sleds.
Their operation, Project Togo, is named in reference to one of the famous sled dogs that helped carry the diphtheria serum to Nome, which, of course, is the original inspiration for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Sometimes it was so cold that they had to keep the syringes filled with COVID serum under their clothes, lest the serum froze.
The operation that they initiated and organized has hit every single village, all 50 in the YK Delta, bringing the vaccine to pretty much anyone who wants it. In some villages, they have been able to vaccinate as much as half the population. As a result, the numbers of COVID infections and deaths are plummeting in this region, and hope is spreading.
This great team, Drs. Hodges and Bates, as well as all in the community and all working at YKHC, have made a huge difference, and this team has created a special bond that nobody will forget.
Dr. Bates, a relative newcomer to Alaska, says that the experience has made her fall in love with the YK Delta region even more. She bought a home. She intends on staying. She describes the beauty of the region, something that she appreciates even more now, as “Our sky is huge. . . . We have a front-row seat to the entire universe.”
These two doctors also have a front-row seat in providing a front-row seat to hope during this pandemic.
So I want to thank both of them again, Dr. Hodges and Dr. Bates, and all those across Alaska who are helping distribute the vaccine.
As I mentioned, right now, Alaska is the No. 1 State in the country per capita in terms of vaccine distribution and the No. 1 State per capita in terms of testing and has one of the lowest death rates. This is really amazing, really, when you see how big and widespread and harsh the weather conditions can be in the great State of Alaska.
Our fellow Alaskans are tough, resilient, and innovative, and Dr. Hodges and Dr. Bates are a huge and essential part of this effort. That is why I want to congratulate them and thank them again for being our Alaskans of the Week.