COVID-19 vaccinations begin in Alaska

A man in green scrubs and a green n95 mask lifts up his shirt sleeve as a woman ina blue tshirt admdinisters a vaccine
Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) employee health nurse Emily Schubert (right) administers the COVID-19 vaccine to David Kwiatkowski, CRNA, (left) the morning of Dec. 15, 2020. Kwiatkowski is the third person in Alaska to receive the vaccine, according to ANTHC. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The first doses of the coronavirus vaccine were administered in Alaska on Tuesday morning. 

Ten employees at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage got the vaccine in a carefully-monitored media event. The bulk of the vaccine will be distributed starting tomorrow at ANMC and Anchorage’s other large hospitals, according to administrators. 

The vaccination itself was straightforward. ANMC Nurse Anesthetist David Kwiatkowski sat down in a chair next to employee health nurse Emily Schubert who was administering the vaccine. 

RELATED: The first COVID-19 vaccine shipment has arrived in Alaska

After a few quick verification questions, Schubert grabbed a syringe and sucked out a few drops from a vial. Inside were the invisible mRNA strands that contain instructions for the body for how to build the characteristic spike protein of the coronavirus, which will prompt an immune response without the full effects of the disease. The vial itself is pretty small.

“It’s barely bigger than my thumb,” Schubert said. 

a person holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine
A picture of the COVID-19 vaccine, after the third person in Alaska received it the morning of Dec. 15, 2020, at the Alaska Native Medical Center. The bottle contains 1.8 mL of the vaccine, but just 0.3 is used for each dose. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Kwiatkowski pulled up his sleeve and before he had time to look down, it was over.

“I had numerous shots when I was in the military, and this is nothing compared to those,” he said. 

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Kwiatkowski works with COVID patients regularly, so he’s at high risk for catching the disease and has seen the devastating effects that it can have. And while he’s heard some people have concerns about getting the vaccine, he said it’s ultimately a matter of having some humility and trusting the American medical researchers who have worked so hard to get the vaccine out.

“There’s a lot of research and development behind the vaccine, long ongoing, more than I’ll ever know, so I just have to have trust in our leadership and the ability of the medical industry and healthcare here to make the right decisions for everyone,” he said. 

And while these initial shots aren’t going to end the pandemic, Kwiatkowski said it’s an important start. He’s glad to have the vaccine, but it won’t change anything in his life immediately. As soon as he was done, Kwiatkowski went back to work. 

Kwiatkowski is believed to be the third person in the state of Alaska to receive the vaccine, according to the state health department. 

The operation to get the vaccine to Alaska went smoothly, despite the challenges. 

Boxes filled with vials arrived on Monday morning and were transferred to freezers at ANMC. 

Sarah Doran-Atchison, a pharmacist manager at ANMC, said despite a practice run on Friday, seeing the vaccines in person was big. 

“We actually sat and looked at the box for a good probably 10 minutes before we opened it,” she said in a pre-recorded video provided by ANMC. “It was very exciting, but very nervous because there’s a lot weighing on us.”

A tracker on each of the refrigerated boxes keeps tabs on how often the box is opened to ensure that it hasn’t gotten too warm for too long. 

Quality Improvement Pharmacist Manager for ANMC Sarah Doran-Atchison points to the sensor on the box of Pfizer vaccines that tracks how long the boxes have been open to ensure temperature doesn’t rise too high. (Screenshot from ANMC video)

“When we got a green notification, then we knew that the vaccine was viable,” she said.

After it’s removed from cold storage, it must be diluted with saline solution within two hours, and then used within six hours. 

LISTEN: Health officials answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccine in Alaska

ANMC Medical Director Dr. Bob Onders said that the initial doses administered on Tuesday allowed the facility to organize its process for the coming days, when the hospital plans to start a 12-hour per day vaccination clinic. 

“I think we’re anticipating trying to get to most people over the next week,” he said. He said that while it’s not mandatory for employees, he’s seen a lot of interest.  

ANMC is also sending shipments out to villages around the state. Onders said that some villages could start getting vaccinations by the end of the week. 

The spelling of Sarah Doran-Atchison has been corrected.

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

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