Alaska will prioritize people 65 and up for next round of COVID-19 vaccine, breaking from federal guidance

Syringes sit on a table with peple standing in the background out of focus
Capital City Fire/Rescue career staff assemble for a pop-up clinic for COVID-19 vaccinations at the downtown fire station in Juneau on Dec. 17, 2020. The vials of vaccine must be diluted with saline before injection. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The state of Alaska is breaking from federal guidance by focusing its next round of COVID-19 vaccine on elders age 65 and over. Frontline essential workers, teachers, prisoners and others in high-risk situations will have to wait until older Alaskans can be vaccinated first.

The Department of Health and Social Services released the new guidelines Thursday afternoon. They outline which groups will receive the vaccine in what’s known as Phase 1b — after frontline health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff emergency responders in Phase 1a.

A federal vaccine committee recommended earlier this month that Phase 1b be designated for elders 75 and over, plus frontline essential workers like teachers, postal service and grocery store workers and bus drivers.

The state is including all those groups in Phase 1b. But within Phase 1b, it’s prioritizing a larger group of elders by allowing those 65 and older to be vaccinated first, instead of 75 and older.

Chief Medical Officer Doctor Anne Zink said there are a few reasons for that. First, Alaska’s elderly population is smaller than other states’. Second, there are relatively few nursing home beds in Alaska, meaning fewer elders were vaccinated as part of that group.

“The third reason was just a real emphasis I think culturally on elders as a priority group in the state overall,” Zink said. “We heard that loud from many different components of the state.”

The Alaska-specific recommendations were first debated by a committee of medical experts, then tweaked by Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy’s administration — a process that was not easy, Zink said.

The state took testimony from more than 380 people and groups before issuing the new guidance.

“It was really hard. It was incredibly hard. We really appreciate all the feedback, and there are really good arguments and all sorts of ways to slice this,” Zink said.

Separately, the state announced on Wednesday that it will receive another 53,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine from the federal government in January. That’s slightly down from the 62,000 doses allocated to the state for December.

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