A Trail of Her Own

Emory epidemiologist braves Alaskan tundra for COVID-19 testing at Iditarod

Jodie Guest poses by the door of a small airplane. She is wearing a winter hat, sunglasses and a winter coat with a patch with the Iditarod logo

The Iditarod, the largest and most famous sled dog racing event in the world, is also known as one of the most complicated sporting events in the world. This year, it gets more complicated due to COVID-19.

Emory professor Jodie Guest, an infectious diseases epidemiologist in the Rollins School of Public Health, is the 2021 Iditarod COVID-19 czar and spent months prepping for the race.

There are many reasons why the Iditarod, which began March 7, is considered to be challenging and one of the most dangerous sporting events. Mushers face sub-zero temperatures in the Alaskan tundra and typically travel more than 1,000 miles on the historic wilderness trail. The terrain is rocky and uphill, and visibility can be limited during snowstorms.

This year, the trail has been shortened to about 850 miles to protect villages from COVID-19 exposure, but the route remains harsh and daunting.

“This race has a lot of moving parts and we have made multiple adjustments to the normal race this year to protect the Alaskan villages and all participants,” Guest says.

“We feel we have planned for every scenario, but we also are prepared to be nimble in adapting to situations as they arise,” she notes. “The race is always full of surprises, usually from Mother Nature. Last year, the race was in full swing when the pandemic began and we quickly adapted by moving the race out of villages.” 

Professor Jodie Guest took over Emory's Instagram on March 11 to share a first-hand look at her work with the Iditarod.

Professor Jodie Guest took over Emory's Instagram on March 11 to share a first-hand look at her work with the Iditarod.

A dog sled runs down a snow covered trail in the Iditarod
Wearing a face mask, face shield and protective gown, along with a warm winter had, Jodie Guest swabs the nose of a man preparing to compete in the Iditarod
Wearing a face mask, face shield and protective gown, along with a warm winter had, Jodie Guest swabs the nose of a man preparing to compete in the Iditarod

When not testing mushers at the Iditarod, Jodie Guest, vice chair of epidemiology at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health, mentors graduate students and fellows and leads a COVID-19 outbreak response team for underserved communities in rural Georgia.

Since the pandemic began, she has been a regular contributor to national media on the pandemic and is the host of Emory's COVID-19 Facebook Live events.

(Photo by Marc Lester / Alaska Daily News)

Planning and perseverance

Guest meticulously planned the Iditarod around COVID-19 safety with a robust protocol that includes testing the 300 volunteers and mushers three times before they go on the trail and multiple times while on the trail. It also includes daily health screening, working bubbles and mandatory masking.

The plan included predictive modeling from Kristin Nelson, assistant professor of epidemiology in Rollins School of Public Health, and support from Rollins graduate students Lisa Chung and Zoe Schneider. The Department of Public Health of Alaska, village and tribal leaders, and the municipality of Anchorage all reviewed the extensive prevention plan. 

Part of the plan includes having a COVID-19 mobile testing lab at Anchorage’s Lakefront Hotel. Donning full personal protective equipment, Guest tested every Iditarod musher, volunteer and veterinarian, a requirement to begin the race on Sunday. 

Swabbing mushers in Arctic temperatures has proven to be difficult because the COVID-19 tests cannot survive the frigid weather. Guest is using hand warmers in coolers as well as Arctic ovens to keep the tests warm for use. She is flying along the trail with the Iditarod Air Force, a volunteer group of pilots, to do testing at each checkpoint.

Guest is no stranger to the sporting event, which involves 47 sled teams and 72 veterinarians this year. Her father is a veterinarian for the Iditarod and Guest has served as its logistics coordinator for more than a decade. This year, she is using her infectious diseases epidemiology expertise to make the event a success in this unprecedented time.

“This year is a very different set of logistics for the race, but we really feel this can be done safely. We have worked for six months on all permutations of what could happen, what is the safest and what could not happen this year on the trail,” she explains. “I’m excited to finally see this plan in action and for the 49th running of the Iditarod.”

It is Alaskan tradition to award the last-place sled team with a red lantern, symbolizing perseverance and dedication.

“This year, ‘perseverance’ is a fitting word for everyone involved in the Iditarod,” Guest says, “and frankly, all the world has endured the last year.”


Story by Catherine Morrow. Photos courtesy of Jodie Guest, except where noted.

A sled carrying a cooler filled with COVID-19 tests
A small airplane is parked on the snow

Jodie Guest flies to checkpoints with the Iditarod Air Force to perform COVID-19 tests.

Jodie Guest flies to checkpoints with the Iditarod Air Force to perform COVID-19 tests.

Wearing a coat and face covering, Jodie Guest holds a red Rubbermaid cooler with COVID-19 testing supplies

At the Iditarod, it's so cold that COVID-19 testing supplies must be kept in a cooler to stay warm.

At the Iditarod, it's so cold that COVID-19 testing supplies must be kept in a cooler to stay warm.

People wearing warm coats and face coverings pose in front of sign that reads "Iditarod Sled Dog Race Start"

Emory epidemiologist Jodie Guest, left, with the COVID-19 testing team at the starting line of the Iditarod on March 7.

Emory epidemiologist Jodie Guest, left, with the COVID-19 testing team at the starting line of the Iditarod on March 7.

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A small airplane is parked on the snow

Jodie Guest flies to checkpoints with the Iditarod Air Force to perform COVID-19 tests.

Jodie Guest flies to checkpoints with the Iditarod Air Force to perform COVID-19 tests.

Wearing a coat and face covering, Jodie Guest holds a red Rubbermaid cooler with COVID-19 testing supplies

At the Iditarod, it's so cold that COVID-19 testing supplies must be kept in a cooler to stay warm.

At the Iditarod, it's so cold that COVID-19 testing supplies must be kept in a cooler to stay warm.

People wearing warm coats and face coverings pose in front of sign that reads "Iditarod Sled Dog Race Start"

Emory epidemiologist Jodie Guest, left, with the COVID-19 testing team at the starting line of the Iditarod on March 7.

Emory epidemiologist Jodie Guest, left, with the COVID-19 testing team at the starting line of the Iditarod on March 7.

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