Iditarod requires vaccination of all mushers, volunteers
By Diana Haecker
The Iditarod Trail Committee last week announced that it will require full COVID-19 vaccinations for all participants in next year’s 50th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The ITC’s board of directors passed a resolution to that effect, mandating that mushers, Iditarod staff, contractors, volunteers, pilots, veterinarians be fully vaccinated to participate in the race. In an interview with The Nome Nugget, Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said that the decision was made after hearing from rural Alaskan communities. As Alaska sees an all-time high of COVID cases, Urbach said, the goal of the Iditarod is to have zero transmission of the virus and that the vaccination mandate is part of that strategy.
He said the decision was reached after hearing concerns from rural villages and checkpoints along the way. He reminded that the race commemorates the epic 1925 serum run, which brought live-saving diphtheria serum from Nenana to Nome in a relay of 20 mushers and their dog teams.
While the particulars still have to be decided on, he said, there will be proof of vaccination required before anybody gets on the trail.
The 2022 race would be the 50th running of the Last Great Race, and the intent is to do everything possible to have a Nome finish. Due to COVID-19 considerations, the 2021 race didn’t end in Nome and followed a different course from Willow to Iditarod and back, for the first time since its first running in 1973.
Urbach said that the 2021 race required three negative tests before the race start and out of 3,000 tests run before and during the race, eight positive tests were detected, with one of them being a musher who was pulled from the race.
“We are committed to make a Nome finish happen this year,” said Urbach. He acknowledged that there had been already a bit of pushback from people who don’t agree with the vaccination mandate. “People are entitled to their opinion,” Urbach said, “they will have to make a decision to be either vaccinated and race or not.”
Since the planning of a 1,000-mile sled dog race through rural Alaskan wilderness is complicated even without a pandemic, the logistics of checkpoint staffing and equipping becomes more complex with the unknown development of the COVID virus and its variants. The strategy includes vaccinations, testing protocols and also if necessary checkpoints outside villages in Arctic Oven tents. “We don’t have a crystal ball,” said Urbach, “No one knows what March is going to look like, but we feel pretty good about the timing and people getting vaccinated, herd immunity kicking in and people masking up, and hopefully the Delta variant transmission fading. I hope that conscious decisions and time is on our side.”
Details about the banquets in Anchorage and Nome have yet to be hammered out, as well as celebratory events in Nome that will commemorate the 50th running of the race. Urbach said that one problem that has crystallized already is that lodging is hard to come by for visitors coming to Nome for the finish of the race. “We wanted to help make Nome a destination, but I hear it’s difficult to get a room in the hotels,” Urbach said.