Hope, hesitancy as first vaccine shipments grow near for Alaska

A white woman with a striped tank top gets a bandaid put on her should
A health care provider places a bandage on the injection site of a patient who received a flu vaccine earlier this year. (Lauren Bishop/CDC)

Alaska will receive a special first shipment of the new COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by drug company Pfizer that will be enough to protect some 5% of the state’s population, health officials said Monday.

The shipment of 35,100 doses could arrive next week and be administered starting soon after, pending required federal approvals, officials from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said at a media briefing Monday.

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, described the news as “incredibly exciting” as Alaska grapples with a sharp spike in case numbers that’s testing hospital capacity.

A woman smiles at the camera
Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“It’s kind of like landing a plane: I think it’s going to be a turbulent couple months. There’s a lot going on with a lot of cases,” she said. “But the end is in sight.”

Providers who will be charged with giving the vaccine say they’re eager to use the first doses to protect front-line workers, who are among the first in line to receive the vaccine. But they also say some of those workers are hesitant about being among the first to receive doses on a nationwide scale, and they add the first shipment will do little to ease the current demands of the pandemic.

Read full coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic from Alaska Public Media

For the 1,300 health care workers and 16 nursing home residents of the tribal provider in Southwest Alaska, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., the first vaccine shipment is good news, said chief executive Dan Winkelman.

“It’s not going to help anyone else, though, from getting the disease,” he added. “And with Alaska’s rates being some of the highest in the nation — and not improving, but getting worse — we need to continue to mask up, wash our hands, socially distance.”

Doses carried on chartered planes

YKHC’s region has the highest rate of COVID-19 in the state, and officials said the provider will get roughly 1,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The doses need to be kept at minus 95 degrees Fahrenheit and only keep for five days in a refrigerator once thawed, which has raised questions about how the state will ensure the safe delivery to remote villages disconnected from the road system.

RELATED: Alaska’s geography poses unique challenge in getting COVID-19 vaccine, treatments to rural areas

But YKHC found a solution in an ultra-cold freezer borrowed from the University of Alaska campus in the Southwest Alaska hub community of Bethel.

The freezer will keep the vaccine safely frozen until YKHC can be confident weather will allow flights in and out of remote villages. Once it’s thawed, nurses will travel from community to community on chartered planes, delivering injections to clinic aides.

“They come out to the runway, we inject them, and then we take off and go to the next place and do the same thing all over again,” said Jim Sweeney, YKHC’s incident commander.

In other areas where distance and logistics pose significant challenges, state officials said they hope to prioritize the use of a different vaccine, produced by drug company Moderna, which has a longer shelf life and can survive at warmer temperatures.

Alaska’s first delivery of 17,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine is expected soon after the Pfizer shipment.

A state allocation committee met last week and unanimously decided to prioritize the first batch of vaccines for frontline health care workers, along with residents of long-term care facilities like nursing homes who have suffered a disproportionately high number of deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emergency responders who provide medical care are also included in “Phase 1a” of the vaccine distribution, state officials said at the media briefing. There are roughly 25,000 people in those groups, Tessa Walker Linderman, a top state vaccination official, said at the media briefing.

Other states will receive their first vaccine shipments in weekly batches, Zink said. But because of Alaska’s sprawling size and accompanying logistical challenges, the Trump administration is treating it like a federal territory and shipping its first month’s supply all at once, she added.

Trump administration officials did not respond to a request for a state-by-state breakdown of initial distributions of the Pfizer vaccine.

But figures released by other states suggest Alaska fared well: While the state of Washington’s population is roughly 10 times that of Alaska, for example, the 200,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine it’s expecting from the Trump administration in December are less than six times as much as Alaska will get.

“We were anticipating for less,” said Walker Linderman. “So, we were really excited about the numbers that we have received.”

Education to combat “vaccine hesitancy”

Beyond the logistics of distributing the vaccine, another looming challenge for public health officials and providers is convincing Alaskans to take it.

The World Health Organization says roughly two-thirds of people need to be vaccinated to achieve population-level immunity, and about 45% of Alaskans get the flu shot each year, officials said at Monday’s media briefing.

Initial surveys suggest between 60% and 70% of Alaskans and health-care providers are likely or very likely to consider getting vaccinated for COVID-19, Zink said.

At a separate legislative hearing Monday morning, health officials fielded an array of questions Alaska state senators said they’d been asked by constituents: Does the vaccine alter a person’s DNA? Does it affect their fertility? Does it come with any kind of microchip or tracking device?

No, no and no, Zink said.

At the hospitals and nursing homes where employees would be part of the initial group to be vaccinated, there’s a level of “anxiety about being in the front lines and being the first ones to do this,” said Jared Kosin, chief executive of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

And because the COVID-19 vaccine will be approved on an emergency basis, providers won’t be able to require people to take it in the same way they do for the flu, Kosin added.

“I think that the onus is on us to all make sure that clean, correct, scientific information is getting out there,” he said. “And all that information points to this vaccine being safe and effective so far.”

At YKHC, the Southwest Alaska tribal health care provider, top officials have been holding internal information sessions for employees who will be the first eligible to receive the vaccine.

YKHC has also surveyed employees about whether they want the vaccine, and if they’re willing to commit to being available for the second shot that’s required weeks after the first one for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. YKHC officials say that a “significant majority” have opted to receive it.

Providers should also get access to much more information about the vaccines once they’re granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, which will help people feel “a little more comfortable,” said Dr. Ellen Hodges, YKHC’s chief of staff.

That emergency authorization could come as soon as this week for the Pfizer vaccine.

“I do think there is some understandable vaccine hesitancy,” Hodges said. “But I feel like we’re on a good path to keep people educated — and that’s the key to it.”

Nat Herz covers government, politics, environment and COVID-19 for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at nherz@alaskapublic.org.

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