Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden has been to Alaska before and has old friends there, and she’s been told Alaska is a model for an effective, coordinated response to COVID-19.

So she made a stop in Anchorage on her way to the Olympic games in Tokyo.

During her 2-hour visit on Wednesday, Biden focused on health services and support for Alaska Natives, Alaskans and military families.

At Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, she met families and representatives of the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing free of charge for military and veteran families with a loved one facing medical challenges.

She got a warm welcome at the offices of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium from consortium President Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, Yup’ik, and Alaska chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink.

Zink told Biden, “it's a true honor to have you. It's a historical moment. We get excited when Alaska is actually on a map. We're even more excited when people come and visit our big and beautiful and absolutely wondrous state. So I thank you.”

Davidson also expressed appreciation for Biden’s visit, and for the Biden administration’s leadership in COVID response. She said, “Alaska Native people and American Indian people in our state of Alaska were four times more likely to die because of COVID-19... with your (the Biden administration’s) support and the state support, we were able to get those vaccinations out to people very, very quickly. And in some communities we're really proud of the fact that we have a hundred percent vaccination in some of our smaller communities.”

Tribal health organizations gave shots in their regional hub hospitals. Health care providers traveled by boat, plane, four-wheelers, snow machine, and sleds to administer vaccinations. In winter, nurses would fly to a village and give shots to people waiting in vans at the runway, then fly to the next village, making several stops during limited daylight hours.

Zink said the history of impacts on Alaska Natives from “every epidemic and pandemic worldwide” shaped the statewide drive and coordinated response to the pandemic.

“The tribal health system in Alaska really is the backbone for the healthcare in the state. In many places, it's the only healthcare system in the area, both for tribal members and non-tribal members,” Zink said.

Zink gave the Alaska COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, which formed early and met regularly, as an example of the close collaboration among state, tribal, federal and private health care providers in Alaska.

Biden began her talk by describing earlier trips to Alaska hosted by the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican. She said he took her and her husband Joe Biden to all parts of Alaska.

“Ted's wife Catherine and I were pregnant at the same time, and it was such a big deal in the Senate. She had her daughter Lilly, and I had my daughter actually like within weeks apart. And it was really a big deal in the Senate because there hadn't been a baby in the Senate in a long time. So most of them were, I guess, older men. And so like the fact that they were having two new babies, it was, you know, quite a thing,” Biden said. 

During other parts of the visit tribal health leaders described both innovative achievements and persistent problems in the delivery of health services to Alaska’s 130,000 Alaska Natives.

Davidson described the consortium’s statewide programs. With the Native nonprofit Southcentral Foundation, it co-manages the 173-bed Alaska Native Medical Center, which offers primary, acute and specialty health services. The consortium also manages statewide environmental and engineering programs, and health promotion and disease programs.

Davidson said 32 villages in Alaska lack flush toilets and running water, a chronic problem made more pressing with the need to wash hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Joseph Park, a cardiologist at the Alaska Native Medical Center, demonstrated a telemedicine cart and software invented by a federal-tribal partnership called AFHCAN.

The cart has software and peripheral equipment that allow staff, some with little clinical training, to collect and transmit large amounts of data to doctors and specialists in distant hospitals and medical centers. The cart includes an otoscope for ear exams, a high resolution camera, and an ECG.

Dr. Cate Buley, a doctor with the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, joined in from Juneau. She said, “the silver lining to the pandemic has been the explosion of this telemedicine service.” She talked about how the use of telemedicine has led to cancer discoveries and healthy baby births. It’s also helped with the delivery of mental and behavioral health services, where demand, Buley said, has increased drastically.

Biden asked Buley, “are most of your patients receptive to getting the (COVID-19) vaccine?”

“Yes, we have extremely high vaccination rates,” Buley answered.

Buley then told FLOTUS, “we delivered some vaccines in some whale-watching boats,” adding that it was “nothing I ever expected.”

“Or you want to do again,” Biden joked.

Biden told Dr. Zink, “you've become one of the most trusted voices in the state, and they say, you know, what a difference that does make, and with steady compassionate leadership, you were quick to calm people's fears and give science-based advice and inspire Alaska to "Think like Zink"" (a phrase used in state messaging about the pandemic)  and thank you for all that you do.

“Valerie, thank you," she continued. "It's such a pleasure to meet you and I love your warm welcome and that I received your grandmother's name. I hope I can try and live up to the woman your grandmother was. And your tireless work to ensure that all Alaskans have quality health care is truly inspiring. And as I saw today, the consortium is setting a gold standard in supporting rural communities," Biden said.

“I'm so excited to see what this organization does under your leadership and to share what I've learned here...and share it with our team in D.C.," she said.

After the Olympic games in Tokyo, Jill Biden plans to stop in Hawaii as she returns to Washington, D.C., from Tokyo.

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Correction: added information about the use of the phrase, "Think Like Zink!"

Updated: to add Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson's full name.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.