Mahbu Avtar sits in an orange plastic chair and pulls down her sleeve, ready for her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, in a small sheep-herding village in Turkey’s eastern Kurdish region, not far from the Iranian border. Turkey has taken on the task of vaccinating its most isolated residents as the world embarks on the largest vaccine drive in history.

Three-person teams of doctors, nurses, and drivers from the rural district of Başkale have spent months traveling into the mountains to deliver vaccine doses to 120 villages. According to the local health department, at least 70% of vaccine doses in Başkale were administered in the field. They can give 300 vaccines in a day if five crews are deployed at the same time.

Many communities are located on steep, unpaved mountain roads, with a public bus passing by only once a day. For much of the season, due to impassable roads, teams had to walk through snow and mud, carrying coolers of vaccines and medical equipment.

Turkey’s vaccination campaign came to a halt in the spring after China delayed shipments of the Sinovac vaccine.

According to the Turkish Ministry of Health, fewer than 17% of Turkish residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but new deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are hastening the process. They can give 300 vaccines in a day if five crews are deployed at the same time.

Many communities are located on steep, unpaved mountain roads, with a public bus passing by only once a day. For much of the season, due to impassable roads, teams had to walk through snow and mud, carrying coolers of vaccines and medical equipment.

Turkey’s vaccination campaign came to a halt in the spring after China delayed shipments of the Sinovac vaccine.

According to the Turkish Ministry of Health, fewer than 17% of Turkish residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but new deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are hastening the process. Her husband contracted COVID-19 at one point. They kept him in one room of the house and fed him through the door. He was able to recover.

Merova was relatively unaffected by the pandemic, but others were devastated. At the start of the pandemic, one neighboring village was quarantined after dozens of people became ill. Short grasses and purple wildflowers cover the hills above Merova. The Iranian border is marked by snowy peaks in the distance.

The COVID-19 vaccine program is a scaled-up version of Başkale’s health department’s childhood vaccine drives in villages. Because of the popularity of raw sheep’s milk, they have always had a small contact-tracing program, usually to respond to occasional outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. Despite this, the doctors say they frequently face difficulties persuading people to get the shots.

According to Aslan, some communities believe they are safe because there hasn’t been a local outbreak, and they believe that living in a remote, rural area will keep them safe. In other villages, especially those near the border, she is lucky if two residents agree to be vaccinated.

Aslan, who grew up in the seaside town of Mersin, never imagined herself living in a town with such a harsh winter. But after medical school, she was assigned there, fell in love, and married a local schoolteacher.

She and her colleagues are regarded as outsiders in some villages. Başkale is a predominantly Kurdish region of eastern Turkey that bears the scars of the Turkish government’s long-running conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant separatist group.

In this region, almost everyone speaks Kurdish, but the government doctors speak Turkish. So, in addition to navigating steep mountain roads, it is the drivers who help translate and build trust with community leaders.

Aslan receives a phone call on her cell phone as the team returns to the health department offices in Başkale. In the villages, five more positive COVID-19 cases have been identified. She and a colleague will have to make a contact-tracing visit to patients to inquire about their recent meetings and whereabouts.

It’s a sobering reminder that the pandemic is far from over for much of the world.