A frustrated Mat-Su doctor implored Alaskans to get vaccinated. The surprise: They listened.

Dr. Tom Quimby, an emergency room doctor in the Mat-Su, gave an emphatic six-minute speech last week about the “soul-crushing” workload that doctors in his community are facing amid the latest surge in COVID-19. He was deluged by messages afterward, including a dozen that reported he’d changed people’s minds about vaccination. (Courtesy Tom Quimby)

When Tom Quimby, a Mat-Su emergency physician, pleaded with local parents last week to give more serious consideration to the COVID-19 vaccine, he didn’t expect that much would change.

He’d been giving similar — albeit less emotional — pitches for months, and yet his region remained among the state’s least vaccinated. The experience left him skeptical that any more public speaking would have an effect.

But this time, after Quimby described watching unvaccinated COVID-19 patients taking their last breaths, a surprising thing happened: People listened. In the days after his 6-minute address to parents, Quimby said he got a string of messages from people whose minds he changed about the vaccine, or knew someone else who was affected.

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He and Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said the reaction is an important reminder that Alaskans may be more open-minded about the vaccine than people think. That’s especially the case, Zink said, amid the new surge in coronavirus cases driven by the super-contagious delta variant — which also comes at a time when many Alaskans, and Americans, feel increasingly helpless about their ability to affect the course of the unending pandemic.

Zink still works her own periodic shifts in the Mat-Su emergency room, and she said she encountered five separate patients over the weekend who she thinks are also likely to get vaccinated after talking with her about it.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink stands on the Old Glenn Highway Footbridge over the Matanuska River on September 17, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The new openness appears to be borne out in Alaska’s vaccine data, which show a roughly 80% jump in the number of first doses administered in the first week and a half of August compared to the first week and a half of July: 6,514, compared to 3,619.

“I think we’re too easy to write each other off, or to think it’s over or that there’s total despair,” Zink said in a phone interview. “Delta is different, and we are seeing more people willing to have a conversation about vaccination now than we have in a long time.”

Quimby has been promoting the vaccine in the Mat-Su since early in the rollout, and he said the subject has become so polarized that his work has cost him “a ton of friends.” When Zink asked him to be part of last week’s forum, he was initially resistant.

“I didn’t really want to go,” he said. “I just told her, ‘I think this is all just a waste of time.’”

Quimby joined the online event just after a tough shift in the emergency room working with seriously ill, unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. And he made an impassioned plea to participants to consider getting the shots.

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“I’ve been putting breathing tubes in patients almost every shift. Our ICU has a capacity of 16 beds. The only reason we haven’t filled it up is because people have been dying and opening beds up,” Quimby said at the forum. “I wish I had something different to tell you.”

Multiple news outlets, including Alaska Public Media, published Quimby’s remarks, and people shared them hundreds of times on social media. Then, Quimby started getting messages.

Among them was a person he didn’t know, who said their husband was about to go in for his second shot.

“He received one at the end of April, along with me. He then decided he wasn’t buying into COVID and wouldn’t get the second shot,” the message read. “I asked him to listen to your five-minute speech, as nothing I’ve shared with him has made him realize the severity of the situation. Your words and genuine nature caused him to say, ‘Make me that appointment.’ I want to thank you for the impact on my family and for all you’re doing.’”

That was far from the only message: Quimby said he heard similar stories from about a dozen people.

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Zink, the chief medical officer, said she thinks there’s increasing openness to the vaccine as delta surges, with attitudes shifting particularly among school-aged children and their parents.

Like for Quimby, Zink said last week was a tough one for her. In a different briefing, she described the hospital as “the most depressing place I have worked in my career.”

But, she said in a phone interview Monday, hearing people in the emergency room coming around to the vaccine over the weekend helped change her own attitude.

“That, alone, made my whole month, to have those patients make that decision,” she said.

Quimby’s takeaway was the same: While some people in the Mat-Su are still attacking him for his advocacy, he said the messages he received gave him new energy to keep pushing Alaskans to get vaccinated.

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Quimby also heard from a number of people he knew who’d said little about the vaccine, leaving him under the assumption that they were skeptics. Instead, they thanked him.

“These people just poured out of the woodwork and said, ‘Thanks for giving us a voice. Thanks for speaking up. We’re behind you,’” he said. “I just had no idea. I was shocked.”

One other lesson, Quimby said, was that after months of making data-driven arguments about the vaccine, it was a personal, emotional one that broke through.

Meanwhile, he added, the situation in the Mat-Su emergency room is still grim.

Over the weekend, Quimby treated an unvaccinated COVID-19 patient who came to Alaska for a parent’s funeral, then had his other parent die from the virus, and caught it himself.

As Quimby’s shift ended, he said, the man’s condition was deteriorating.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new vaccine data released by the state.

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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