With fewer Alaskans eager for COVID-19 vaccines, more doses are going to waste

Vials of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine sit on a table at a clinic at the Cooper Landing school last week. After they’re opened, the vials must be used within six hours or thrown away. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska providers say they’re seeing a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses going to waste, underscoring how quickly the state is running out of residents eager to receive the shots.

The vaccine comes in vials holding six to 11 doses, and have a limited shelf life once opened: 12 hours for the Moderna vaccine, and six for Pfizer’s.

Early in the vaccination campaign, when doses were only open to limited groups, it was easy for providers to find eager recipients if a clinic ended with unused doses left in a vial. Now the shots have been open for weeks to any Alaskan 16 or older, officials say that’s become much harder.

“At this point, pretty much everyone who comes through our clinics, everyone who they know has already been vaccinated if they want one,” said Robert Barr, who oversees Juneau’s municipal vaccine distribution. “It’s more of a challenge now.”

Since December, Alaska recorded just 3,000 wasted doses out of a total of 500,000 administered, a loss rate slightly more than than 0.5%, according to data provided by the Department of Health and Social Services.

But those data also show sharp increases in waste this month, with two-thirds of all the lost doses — 1,985 — coming since April 1.

That change comes as public health officials are warning Alaska’s demand for vaccines has begun to plateau, even though just 38% of residents have gotten at least one shot — far below the level experts say is needed to reach herd immunity.

The current national rate of vaccine waste is roughly 0.1%, though experts expect that rate to rise similarly to Alaska’s as unfulfilled demand for the shots begins to ease.

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On a Thursday call with reporters, a top Alaska vaccine official, Matt Bobo, said he’s not seeing any concerning trends with the unused vaccines, and called the level of waste “pretty average.” The state’s message to providers is to focus on promoting the shots and not worry too much about waste, but officials plan to assess levels at the end of the month.

Syringes pre-loaded with doses of the COVID-19 vaccine await injection at a clinic last week in Soldotna. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Those most concerned about the wasted doses may be the nurses and other workers charged with giving out the shots. Many are keenly aware of the global scarcity of COVID-19 vaccine, and officials say it’s been hard for providers to see any doses thrown away.

“They hate doing it,” said Christy Lawton, a top city health official in Anchorage. “We don’t want to waste something that’s precious.”

Officials say they’re going to great lengths to keep from wasting doses, even if they’re not always completely successful.

The state has a program called AKVaxMatch, designed to link providers with extra doses to others that could use them before they expire.

In Anchorage at one point, providers trying to offload unused vaccine got permission to park outside a business, where they recruited a half-dozen people to get unscheduled shots, Lawton said.

In Juneau, officials are scheduling back-to-back clinics, so unused doses from one can flow into the next, said Barr.

They’re also slowing down vaccinations toward the end of clinics, so providers only open one vial at a time — even if that’s not always as convenient for patients, who sometimes face longer waits, Barr added.

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He's been a reporter in Alaska for a decade, and is currently reporting for Alaska Public Media. Find more of his work by subscribing to his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com. Reach him at natherz@gmail.com.

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