The first shipment of a COVID-19 vaccine could be arriving in Alaska in just a few weeks, state health officials say.
The early batches of vaccine will be prioritized for essential workers in health care, assisted living and emergency medical settings, officials said Monday. Vaccines will be in limited quantity initially, and probably won’t be available to the general public until around March. The state is still working on plans to prioritize vaccine supplies once they’re more broadly available.
The mid-December timeline for vaccines is based on new announcements made by two drug companies — Pfizer and Moderna — who say their vaccines are more than 90 percent effective against COVID-19, a stunningly high effective rate for vaccines developed in record time, health officials say.
A third vaccine from an England-based pharmaceutical company called AstraZeneca announced early Monday that its vaccine was also up to 90% effective.
The high efficacy rates of these vaccines is “such a triumph,” said Joe McLaughlin, a state epidemiologist. For comparison, influenza vaccine effectiveness typically range from between 40 and 60%, he said.
Pfizer on Friday submitted an application for emergency authorization use of their vaccine that still needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration as well as a recommendation from the the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will then make recommendations for how the vaccine should be distributed.
Moderna has said it intends to submit its own application for emergency authorization use within weeks, and AstraZeneca also said it planned to apply for early approval as soon as possible.
With these final bars left to clear, questions abound about who will get access to the vaccine and when, how safe it is, and how distribution could work in Alaska, a state with unique geographic challenges and limited health care access.
Here’s what we know so far about Alaska’s plans.
What is the most likely timeline for vaccine distribution in Alaska, and what does it depend on?
The state has not definitively decided a timetable for distributing the vaccine, but it will be done in phases, with front-line health care workers being prioritized for the first doses, said Tessa Walker Linderman, the co-lead with Alaska COVID Vaccine Task Force, during the Monday briefing.
Based on the latest timeline of meetings scheduled by federal agencies, the very soonest the Pfizer vaccine could be shipped is Dec. 10, with Moderna likely about a week behind, said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, on the same call.
The next phase could include those who are high-risk or critical-infrastructure workers, while the general public likely won’t have access to a vaccine until March or April, she estimated.
Pregnant women and children, however, were not included in any of the trials, so they’ll have to wait even longer to get access to a vaccine.
Front-line health care workers are being defined as critical hospital workers, frontline EMS staff, and long-term care facilities staff, Walker Linderman said.
The state does not know how much vaccine it will be receiving, and officials are currently planning for three different scenarios: one in which the state initially receives less than 5,000 doses; one around 10,000 doses; and one around 20,000.
“We have not been provided any specific numbers, but these are our three potential scenarios that we are planning on working through,” she said during a call with potential vaccine providers last week.
What are the challenges to rolling out a vaccine in Alaska?
Vaccine distribution has always been a logistical challenge in a state where many communities are accessible only by plane, boat or snowmobile.
A tight timeline for distribution — especially in the case of Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, and can then only be refrigerated for five days after it’s thawed — complicates things further, officials say.
“There are very few freezers in Alaska and across the country that have that capacity,” said Joe McLaughlin, an epidemiologist with the state health department. “And so it makes a logistically a little more difficult how to get that vaccine out to more rural areas,” he explained.
Fortunately, the Moderna vaccine has a bit easier-to-achieve temperature range, he said; more in the range of minus 20.
The AstraZeneca vaccine doesn’t have to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures at all.
State health officials said one of their main priorities is making sure rural Alaskans have equal and equitable access to a vaccine.
“This is a highly talked about conversation right now,” Zink said. “We know that rural health outcomes are generally worse.”
On both a federal and state level, conversations about equitable access to vaccine distribution are being had, she said.
A team of 40 people including state and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium representatives are working “around the clock” on plans to receive, distribute and administer the vaccine, Walker Linderman said.
So which of the vaccines will Alaska choose to distribute?
Alaska has not yet decided which vaccine it will receive, but that will depend on which is ultimately determined to be safest and most effective, and which is logistically easiest for distribution in the state, McLaughlin said.
They also might see differential effectiveness of these vaccines by sub-populations — for example, one might work better on older adults or those who are higher-risk. That will influence their decision, too.
How safe are the vaccines, especially given the sped-up timeline? Are there known side effects?
Dr. Liz Ohlsen, a physician with the state health department, said on a call late last week that although the development of a COVID-19 vaccine has moved much more quickly than is typical, neither drug companies have skipped any steps for their clinical trials.
There are a couple reason for the sped-up timeline, none of which involve safety or efficacy compromises, Ohlsen said.
“Labs all around the world dropped everything they were working on and switched to this,” she said. “So there’s been a lot of information sharing in ways that we’ve never seen before.”
Both drug companies have now completed their phase three clinical trials, she said. Tens of thousands of people have now been tested, with scientists looking closely at how safe they are and how well they work.
Ohlsen said people should be aware that according to the data published so far on the two vaccines, it appears that both can cause mild side effects within the first few days.
“So these are things like fatigue, headache, joint pain and chills,” she said. The second dose usually provokes more of an “immune response,” she said, which is why those side effects are most substantial then.
These symptoms simply show that your body is “mounting a response,” and are not a sign that the vaccine is hurting you, she said.
Still, “it’s important that people know beforehand that it would not be unexpected side effects to have these adverse effects in the first one to three days of getting the vaccine,” she said.
More will be known once all data from the clinical trials becomes publicly available, she said.
Will there be a cost to get vaccinated?
There should be no cost for patients receiving a vaccine, said Walker Linderman. However, health care providers will likely be able to bill insurance for an administration fee.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also said that cost will not be an obstacle to getting the vaccine, and that supplies will be distributed by the federal government at no cost to enrolled COVID-19 vaccination providers.
What does the vaccine likely mean for how soon life could go back to normal?
Despite the hurdles that remain, Alaska officials say the news of a vaccine on the horizon is reason to feel hopeful.
“We’re incredibly excited by the opportunity for possible vaccination in the near future,” said Zink.
Still, she reminded Alaskans that a vaccine is not a magic cure, and Alaskans still need to be following all public health guidelines right now to help control the spread. There still record amounts of virus circulating in the state, she said. The effects of the vaccine will not be felt immediately.
“I kind of think of it like the sun,” she said. “Alaskans are used to dark winter, and we’re also used to the fact that Dec. 22nd doesn’t feel much lighter than the 21st. And I think the vaccine is going to feel the same way.”
First, you won’t notice it, she said. By February, it will feel like something’s changing.
“And by summer solstice, it’s going to be like, the sun is out, and it is different than it’s been before,” she said.
ADN reporter Zaz Hollander contributed to this story.