The first COVID-19 vaccine shipment has arrived in Alaska; shots could start Tuesday

A UPS cargo plane arrives at Anchorage’s international airport with the first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine late Sunday. (Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

Alaska health officials said the first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine, from drug company Pfizer, arrived in the state late Sunday on a UPS plane, and shots are expected to begin this week.

The Department of Health and Social Services, in a prepared statement Monday announcing the shipment’s arrival, didn’t specify when the first doses would be injected.

But Anchorage hospitals say they’re planning to start vaccinating front-line health care workers later this week, with Providence Alaska Medical Center scheduling its first shots for Wednesday morning and others set for as soon as Tuesday.

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“The COVID-19 vaccine is going to help Alaskans put the worst behind us,” GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in the prepared statement. “We will begin the process of finally getting the upper hand of this pandemic and getting our lives back to normal.”

The federal government initially granted 35,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine for Alaska. Another shipment of 27,000 doses of a different vaccine from drug company Moderna is expected soon.

Rebi Abdullahi, a supply chain technician at Providence Alaska Medical Center, brings the first box of COVID-19 vaccines into the hospital loading dock. (Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

The first round of vaccinations is limited to: Nursing home and other long-term care facility residents and staff; emergency responders providing medical care; community health aides; frontline health care workers with the highest risk of getting COVID-19; and responders who are personally administering vaccinations.

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The Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency authorization for the Pfizer vaccine last week.

At Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, some 300 people are involved in the effort to get the vaccine to roughly 2,000 employees, said Dr. Michael Bernstein, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

“It’s one of the biggest mobilizations that I have participated in, in my medical career,” he told reporters Monday.

Providence’s vaccinations will start at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, when people will arrive at an auditorium to get some of the first doses of the vaccine.

The hospital expects to initially get about 2,000 doses for frontline health care workers, plus more for between 400 and 450 residents and staff at Providence’s assisted living center.

Dr. Michael Bernstein (Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s initial grant of vaccine from the federal government is enough for less than 10% of the state’s population, and experts say that that won’t be enough to get the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

But one thing it will reduce, Bernstein said, is worrying.

“If you’re a health-care worker in the hospital and you have frail, elderly parents living with you, or children or someone in the family with cancer and you’re constantly under the emotional strain of being worried about carrying something home that could hurt your loved ones — that fear should be reduced,” he said.

While other states and countries have publicized their very first recipients of the vaccine, officials are leaving the exact identities and timing of the first doses something of a mystery in Alaska, “just for security reasons,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, a top state vaccine official.

“We’re trying to make sure that our No. 1 priority is getting vaccine out and across the state,” she said.

Hospitals in Anchorage and Juneau, at least, said they’re starting vaccinations later this week, possibly as soon as Tuesday.

The timeline for other places around the state is a little murkier. In Ketchikan, for example, the hospital’s first shipment of a hundred doses won’t arrive until next week.

Timing for the vaccinations has been in flux, which officials attributed to the complexity of sending doses around such a vast and remote state.

Juneau pediatrician Dr. Amy Dressel was originally scheduled to be vaccinated Monday, but that was pushed back. Nonetheless, she said, she’s looking forward to the moment.

“It is a little bit of anxiety, and nerve-wracking. But it’s also pretty exciting, and it’s a sigh of relief to be like, ‘I don’t have to sit there and worry about this so much all the time,'” she said.

Everyone who receives one of the initial vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer will have to return for a second dose to ensure the full effectiveness. Providers said they have systems in place to make sure people don’t forget.

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