Alaska Native Nurses Battle COVID and the Elements

Through rain, snow, sleet, windstorms and even unexpected visits from wildlife, a dedicated trio of COVID-19 Corps healthcare workers are battling the pandemic—and the elements—in their native Alaska to provide COVID testing to the population of Anchorage and beyond. Elizabeth Arteaga, Elizabeth Aarons, and Tracy Frost are the tight-knit team of former in-patient nurses now tasked with running the testing program for the largest state, land-wise, in the entire U.S.

Officially known as the Tribal Nation Testing and Resulting Statewide Services Director and Coordinators, the three RNs are part of the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 surge-staffing initiative, assigned to assist the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), the biggest, most comprehensive tribal health organization in the country. As it relates on its website, the non-profit was established in 1997 “to meet the unique health needs of Alaska Native and American Indian people,” which make up two of the minority populations at highest risk for COVID-19.

Elizabeth Aarons

Tracy Frost

Elizabeth Arteaga

The Testing and Resulting group are dedicated to that mission, handling a broad range of pandemic-related duties. “We do a lot of interdepartmental collaboration and resource allocation,” explained Arteaga, the program director. “We oversee a lot of the staff here, and we’re writing all the procedures and protocols for testing.”

They began testing for COVID in the Spring of 2020 at a large drive-up site at the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC), where hundreds of samples a day are still being collected. Those samples are then processed in an onsite lab. At the peak in mid-November, they were performing around 800 tests a day, and by February 2021, more than 110,000 tests had been completed from those sites and more across the region.

That’s an impressive enough feat for a state with about 730,000 residents. But Alaska poses some unique challenges that require Arteaga, Frost and Aarons to constantly shift priorities and think on their feet. Their biggest daily foe? “Definitely the weather,” said Arteaga. Along with the fall rainy season and the famously cold winters, Anchorage is no stranger to gale force winds.

“One evening we had a pretty bad windstorm, and it took out all of the tents and the heat lamps,” recalled Frost. “We try to keep the workers warm, especially when their hands are wet all the time from the hand sanitizer. But that left our staff unsheltered.” Though, as Aarons said, “We adjust and adapt quickly in Alaska. We were still able to start operations on time, it’s just that we didn’t have as much cover as we were used to.”

Those notoriously tough conditions are nothing new for the ANTHC, which serves more than 180,000 people spread across 663,000 miles. “We’ve worked with a lot of different community members and tribal organizations to supply them with different testing modalities out in the rural villages,” explained Arteaga.

Aarons agreed. “If you happen to become critically ill in a village, there’s going to be a delay in care. You’ve got to get medevac'd in, and it could be hours before you’re in an ICU with doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists able to give you the care that you need.”

Those medical helicopter flights can be more than eight hours long and are often delayed by weather. “It’s not really feasible in rural Alaska to take care of a COVID patient, so that's why we have to do widespread testing. We have to make sure that we’re able to track and prevent the virus from ever hitting those communities in the first place,” said Arteaga.

In less than a year, the transition from where this started in such a panic to where we are now … to see how much we’ve grown and what we're capable of, it’s really amazing.

That keeps the Anchorage testing site busy, which has led to some long wait times. “Sometimes it would be an hour before you got swabbed,” said Frost. “Some of the people that were coming through the drive-through were trying to get out of their cars to use the walk-up site, and that’s not a good idea with all the ice.” So Alaskan resourcefulness came through once again. An online registration system was instituted, complete with a QR code for check-in. But then another issue popped up. “There are a lot of elders who have never used a computer before,” explained Frost. There are now helpers at the ready with wifi-connected tablets to take tech novices through the sign-in process.

“We are very appreciative of the work this team is doing here with COVID-19 testing,” said Dr. Bob Onders, ANMC Administrator. “We're thankful to the CDC Foundation for its help and these three nurses’ support and dedication during the pandemic.”

Even Arteaga is impressed by her team’s flexibility: “In less than a year, the transition from where this started in such a panic to where we are now … to see how much we’ve grown and what we're capable of, it’s really amazing.”

Speaking of amazing, there’s another memorable moment Aarons happened to recall: “A mama moose and her babies came by one day.” Frost laughed, “Yep, we have moose, geese, squirrels, and sometimes black bears coming through to get tested.” She was joking, but if anybody could get a successful wildlife-swabbing program up and running, it’d be this ever-resilient crew of Alaska Natives.


This article is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $45,939,536 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.

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