Iditarod musher tests positive for COVID-19, withdrawn from race

Matt Failor drives his dog team, high in the Alaska Range during the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in Rainy Pass, Alaska, U.S. March 8, 2021. Gunnar Johnson of Minnesota tested positive for COVID-19 at the checkpoint in McGrath and has withdrawn from the race. (Zachariah Hughes/ADN/Pool via REUTERS)
The Iditarod has announced its first coronavirus case, in a musher at a major mid-race checkpoint.

Gunnar Johnson of Minnesota tested positive for COVID-19 at the checkpoint in McGrath, near race mile 310, more than a third of the way into the Iditarod.

Johnson, 52, was asymptomatic, according to a statement from the Iditarod Wednesday night.

Race officials required mushers to test negative for COVID-19 three times before the Iditarod began — the last swab taken hours before Sunday’s start.

Johnson’s next COVID-19 test, along with all the other mushers, was upon arrival in McGrath. He had stopped for at least three hours at four other checkpoints along the way.

The McGrath checkpoint is based at an airplane hangar this year, instead of in town, as a COVID-19 precaution. Race officials are also requiring face masks at checkpoints, and have strict rules about who can be there.

Johnson and his 14-dog team pulled into McGrath around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to race standings.

The musher took a rapid test just outside the checkpoint. He tested positive, then tested positive twice more on molecular-based tests, the Iditarod statement said.

Johnson is now being isolated in a large tent, and “will be removed off the trail using safe transport,” the statement said.

“Johnson did not come into close contact with race personnel or community members, nor did he enter any buildings or community spaces in McGrath,” the statement said. “However, he did park his team, as he was planning to rest at the checkpoint.”

Pete Kaiser leaves the Rainy Pass checkpoint, high in the Alaska Range during the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in Rainy Pass, Alaska, U.S. March 8, 2021. (Zachariah Hughes/ADN/Pool via REUTERS)

More than 20 teams were also resting at the McGrath checkpoint Wednesday afternoon, including front-runners like Dallas Seavey, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Pete Kaiser. Those three were on their mandatory 24-hour layovers.

The Iditarod did not say how many people Johnson might have been in close contact with along the trail before arriving in McGrath. It said its COVID-19 team is in the process of contact tracing.

Before McGrath, Johnson had stopped for his own mandatory, 24-hour break at the checkpoint on the outskirts of Nikolai. He also stopped for multiple hours in Rainy Pass, Rohn and Skwentna.

Johnson was officially withdrawn from the race at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday.

“He is incredibly disappointed and felt his dog team looked great,” said the Iditarod’s statement.

This year was Johnson’s third Iditarod, and he was racing with dogs from veteran musher Jim Lanier’s kennel. Johnson placed 48th in his last Iditarod, in 2017.

In a Facebook post Wednesday night, Lanier’s wife, Anna Bondarenko, wrote that they were devastated to learn of Johnson’s positive test.

“COVID could happen to anyone. We did everything we could to assure everyone’s safety. Jim and I were fully vaccinated in February,” she wrote. “Please keep Gunnar Johnson in your positive thoughts. He worked so hard to train and prepare for this Iditarod.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Alaska politicians send Trudeau letter saying they’re “shocked” over Canada’s COVID-19 cruise ship ban, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Jobless huskies in Arctic Finland travelling south for work as COVID-19 puts breaks on winter season, Yle News

Denmark/Greenland: Greenland authorities buoyed by high demand for COVID-19 vaccine, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Iceland institutes new COVID-19 border measures, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  Dogsled race in arctic Norway cancelled over COVID-19 fears, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Norway closes borders over fears of virus, but exempts Russian fishermen from severely infected border region, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedes caught in Norway border limbo, Radio Sweden

United States: Musher Aliy Zirkle is injured on Iditarod trail, flown to Anchorage for care, Alaska Public Media

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