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Everyone involved in the Iditarod must be fully vaccinated against COVID

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins in March. This year, all humans associated with the race - mushers, veterinarians, volunteers - must be vaccinated against COVID-19. Emily Schwing reports from Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

EMILY SCHWING: Last year's Iditarod followed a shortened course, and it didn't include stops in predominantly Indigenous villages in order to avoid spreading the virus. This year, it's the 50th running of the Iditarod, and officials are still trying to keep the virus off the 1,000-mile trail.

ROB URBACH: Many of these rural communities certainly don't have an ICU, much less ventilators. So why not reduce the risk?

SCHWING: Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach says there wasn't much choice other than to require COVID-19 vaccinations for anyone taking part this year, including press.

URBACH: Well, it's pretty simple. We couldn't go to Nome without it.

SCHWING: In fact, last year, without the vaccine, the race didn't go to Nome at all. But this year they will. The race ends in Nome because back in 1925, a handful of mushers relayed a lifesaving treatment for a deadly diphtheria outbreak in the remote city. It's known as the Great Race of Mercy. Today's Iditarod follows a similar trail across Alaska. Now race officials are hoping the COVID vaccine will keep rural residents safe from the race itself.

PETE KAISER: Any precautionary steps you can take, I think, are good.

SCHWING: 2019 Iditarod champion Pete Kaiser was among some of the first people to be vaccinated in the state, even before last year's race. That's because he's Alaska Native. The Indian Health Service was able to get vaccines out to tribal members long before they were widely available to the general public.

KAISER: I don't think it really changes anyone's race strategy. I don't think it will change mine or anything like that.

SCHWING: The vaccine requirement did change the strategy for at least one veteran musher. Wade Marrs withdrew from the 50th anniversary race because he points out even vaccinated people, given omicron, can still spread COVID-19.

WADE MARRS: Their main reasoning was for the safety of the village travel, you know? And so I don't blame the race for doing what's right by them. But at this point in time, I mean, we all know that you get and spread the virus either way.

SCHWING: Because of the concern that even vaccinated people can contract and spread the virus, one village along the Iditarod trail has also opted out. Takotna will not serve as a checkpoint this year. It's normally a popular spot where mushers rest their dogs and nosh on homemade pie.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIMOUSINE'S "OISEAU DU MATIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.