Iditarod says musher who tested positive for COVID-19 likely became infected before race

Gunnar Johnson travels down the Susitna River during the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race course drastically altered by the coronavirus pandemic at Deshka Landing in Willow, Alaska, U.S. March 7, 2021. (Bill Roth/ADN/Pool via REUTERS)
Iditarod officials are trying to track down two mushers who may have been exposed to COVID-19 when they shared a tent with Gunnar Johnson before he tested positive for the illness.

Johnson’s COVID-19 test came back positive Wednesday afternoon in McGrath — a major checkpoint more than a third of the way into the competition.

The Iditarod says 52-year-old Johnson did not have symptoms.

He was removed from the race after the positive test, isolated in a tent and later flown off the trail.

Meanwhile, race officials began tracing who Johnson may have had close contact with over the last 300 miles of trail and multiple checkpoints.

That process “doesn’t include any sleep,” said Dr. Jodie Guest, an epidemiologist working with the Iditarod.

“The race marshal and I have been going through all of the time in and outs for all the mushers,” she said in a call with reporters Thursday. “What we’re really trying to do is pinpoint who was in Nikolai during Gunnar’s 24-hour time that he had there.”

Nikolai is the checkpoint before McGrath, and it’s where Johnson and his 14 dogs took a required 24-hour break from racing.

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. Picture taken March 8, 2021. Zachariah Hughes/ADN/Pool via REUTERS

Guest said Johnson did not go into any buildings during the race.

But he did share a tent with two other mushers in Nikolai. Who, exactly, those mushers are remains a mystery. That’s not as implausible as it might sound, said Guest.

“People crawl in and out during the night and you’re not having a lot of conversation. They’re also masked,” she said. “So he’s just not sure who those two people are.”

Guest said the race did additional COVID-19 testing in Nikolai Thursday, and all results came back negative.

She also planned to do more testing at the prior checkpoint, Rohn, where Johnson spent nearly four hours Monday evening.

“We have 14 volunteers who are in Rohn right now,” Guest said. “And we’re just going to test all of them to make sure we’re being very, very careful.”

The Iditarod believes Johnson was exposed to the coronavirus before the Iditarod began.

Ryne Olson sits with her seven-year-old dog Dolly, named after Dolly Parton from a litter theme of Country music stars, during the Iditarod Sled Dog Race at the Ophir checkpoint in Alaska, U.S. March 10, 2021. (Zachariah Hughes/ADN/Pool via REUTERS)

Mushers were required to test negative for COVID-19 three times before the race started, including last Thursday and at the starting line Sunday.

Guest said Johnson was in the car with a dog handler last Friday, and that dog handler tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday. The race began the next day.

Asked if Johnson knew about the positive test before the race started, Guest said: “I don’t have that information.”

Guest said all mushers will now not only get tested for COVID-19 on their way into McGrath, but also on their way back through the checkpoint as they retrace their steps to the finish line near Willow.

Out on the trail, there are currently 41 teams still competing in the Iditarod.

That’s after rookie musher Christopher Parker, of Fairbanks, dropped out of the race Thursday afternoon “in the best interest of his race team,” according to a brief statement from the Iditarod.

By evening, four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey was in the lead.

His team was the first to turn around at the checkpoint of Iditarod, and head back down the trail. He was followed by Ryan Redington, Richie Diehl, Pete Kaiser and Joar Leifseth Ulsom.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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: Iditarod musher tests positive for COVID-19, withdrawn from race, Alaska Public Media

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