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Accessible only by air, sea or trail, Stehekin faces unique COVID-19 vaccine challenge

Since the COVID-19 vaccine landed in Washington state, Lake Chelan Health has been on a mission to protect some of the most isolated communities in the lower 48.

STEHEKIN, Wash — Two communities isolated from the everyday world now have the COVID-19 vaccine.

On the far end of Lake Chelan sit Holden Village and Stehekin. No roads lead to these communities. You can only get there by boat, plane or hiking in on the Pacific Crest Trail.

These are places where, if you get seriously ill, with the coronavirus, for example, there’s no easy way to get out and no easy way to get life-saving medical care.

“It takes a lot of effort; this doesn’t come by accident,” said Ray Eickmeyer, director of Lake Chelan EMS. 

Eickmeyer, along with paramedic Mistaya Johnston, hopped on a boat in Chelan on March 30 and made the 50-mile ride up the lake hauling a specialized cooler packed with doses of the Moderna vaccine.

“We had to get health districts involved, like our Chelan-Douglas Public Health. We had to get permission from the Department of Health to deliver the vaccine up here in this way and what storage container and what temperature,” Eickmeyer said.

RELATED: How many people in Washington state have been vaccinated for COVID-19?

An hour later, they docked in a cove and drove another 30 minutes up a long winding road to Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center.

“It feels like Christmas. It’s really exciting,” said Victoria Kerssen-Gripp, a Holden Village resident.

A small group of people live at Holden Village year-round. The village typically hosts visitors who come to disconnect from the outside world and focus on worship.

But not in the age of COVID.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve been shut down,” said Mark Bach, co-director of Holden Village.

The COVID-19 vaccine allows the opportunity to open again and even reconnect with loved ones they haven’t talked to in months.

“It makes (me) feel safer for when we go out so that we are able to see the people we are trying to stay connected to on the outside world but also to care for each other,” said Kerssen-Gripp.

“We were so impressed that during our time of isolation and also the time of a global health crisis that we could call people, even from here, and have them tell us, ‘We’re thinking about you. We’re supporting you. We want to do everything we can to safeguard your health.’ It’s been an unending affirmation basically of the public sector taking care of us,” Bach explained.

After giving doses to Holden Village residents, with vaccine in hand, the two EMTs headed back down the long winding road to the boat for another ride even further up the lake to Stehekin, a community of fewer than 100 people.

The people of Stehekin rely on deliveries from outsiders or residents venturing out to Chelan to get supplies.

This adds to the potential that COVID could make its way to the community. In fact, there have been nine cases of the coronavirus in Stehekin, according to residents.

Stehekin hopes to reopen to tourists in the coming months.

Billy Sullivan lives in Stehekin and chose not to leave since the pandemic started.

“It’s all hibernation," Sullivan said. "You don’t see neighbors or talk to them very often.”

He grew up there, moved away for a while, but came back 12 years ago.

He stopped counting days he hasn’t left his home when he hit 100.

But on this day he ventured out to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“They’re our valley angels," he said, describing the EMTs who brought the vaccine. "You know some of them, and they’ve had a history here. It’s life-altering.”

In total, 55 people were given doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on that day. All of them were eligible under state guidelines, either due to age, health conditions or profession.

Sullivan got his dose from someone he knows – Johnston, the paramedic who helped make this trip happen. She was born and raised in Stehekin.

“Stehekin’s a small community so I feel like every single person up here, whether they are family or not, they are family," said Johnston. "We’re a really close community and so it’s just been a real joy for me to able to do that."

The people of Stehekin described Johnston and Eickmeyer as life savers and heroes.

“It’s a huge honor because really the pleasure is ours being able to bring this up here and do this is really a blessing for me," Johnston said. "Like, just another day of work, right? But it’s so special to be able to come to my hometown and bring the vaccine up.”

“It feels like I’m making a difference, right? And it makes me feel good,” said Eickmeyer.

For people like Sullivan, the vaccine means a normal life where he’s not worried about relying on others to bring him food and medications, where he can live the independent life he knew before.

“I can't say how much I appreciate this life-giving opportunity,” he said.