The first batches of COVID-19 vaccine could arrive in Alaska as soon as next week, and in “drastically” higher quantities than state health officials say they initially expected.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium say they expect the first shipments within the next two weeks. Officials initially expected anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 doses in this first phase.
If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration grants Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine emergency authorization on Thursday, state health officials say a batch of 35,100 doses could physically arrive early next week.
Another 17,900 doses of Moderna’s vaccine, the next expected to get federal approval, could come a week later.
Now officials say they’re working around the clock as they grapple with the challenges of delivering the vaccines to residents of a vast state with far-flung, remote communities in the middle of winter — hurdles that prompted them to make Alaska the only state getting monthly instead of weekly shipments.
The first recipients could get vaccinated as soon as late next week if federal recommendations are finalized quickly, according to Tessa Walker Linderman, the state’s lead for the COVID-19 vaccination task force.
“Really on a daily basis, things are changing,” Walker Linderman said.
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It was January when the state’s COVID-19 response started after a jet carrying American evacuees out of Wuhan, China, made a stopover at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport for coronavirus screening.
“A year later to be looking at two really safe and stable platforms for vaccine administration that look much more efficacious than we thought is incredibly exciting,” the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said during a media briefing Monday.
The first vaccine distributions will be this month and next if federal authorization comes. Regular shipments of vaccines are expected to continue throughout the year.
The first vaccine recipients will be hospital-based frontline health-care workers and long-term care facility staff and residents, officials say. The next tier: emergency medical and fire personnel who provide emergency medical care, community health aides and people required to perform vaccines. A separate federal distribution is coming to military installations here. The federal government has allocated 11,700 doses of the initial Pfizer shipment for the Alaska Tribal Health System, officials say.
The vaccines aren’t expected to be more broadly available until next year.
The state will not mandate COVID-19 immunization, officials said in response to several questions on that topic during a legislative hearing before the Alaska Senate’s Health & Social Services Committee on Monday.
Sen. Tom Begich, a Democrat from Anchorage, said it’s important for lawmakers to “reduce the fear levels” among people who mistakenly think the government will force them to get a COVID-19 shot.
“If we just are rational about this, we can reduce the concerns that people irrationally have expressed and have been fed by social media,” Begich said.
Some Alaskans, including health-care workers, say they’re skeptical of the vaccine’s safety. Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson, who chairs the committee, relayed questions from the public about whether the vaccine would alter recipients’ DNA or affect fertility. Officials on the call said the vaccine wouldn’t do either.
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An initial poll the state conducted for health care providers found 60% of Alaskans surveyed said they’d be likely or very likely to consider getting vaccinated for COVID-19, Zink said. About 45% of Alaskans get a flu shot every year.
The COVID-19 vaccines will be free to the public and providers will be able to bill insurance companies, officials say.
Distribution and storage are among the chief hurdles for a team of state and tribal health officials working on getting the vaccine to Alaskans. The 50-person team has been working on the state’s vaccine plans since August, according to Walker Linderman.
The Pfizer vaccine requires storage at extremely low temperatures of about minus-75 degrees Celsius. It’s shipped with dry ice.
Many communities lack the ultra-cold freezers necessary for storage, though Walker Linderman said she was surprised at how many had them. A number of places — especially small, remote communities — have said they’d rather wait for the more easily stored Moderna vaccine to become available.
Both vaccines require two doses to work best: 21 days apart for Pfizer and 28 days for Moderna.
Alaska is the only state getting shipments in monthly batches — an option the federal government gave to territories — due to the geographical and logistical challenges getting the vaccine distributed, Zink said. Most states are getting shipments direct to hospitals. Alaska’s “hub and spoke” rural system of health care and extreme isolation makes distribution tricky, so officials wanted bulk shipments.
It’s still not entirely clear whether the vaccines can keep people from spreading the virus. It also hasn’t been tested on children or pregnant women yet.
It’s also not clear just when the vaccine might allow businesses, schools and daily lives to return to normal.
State Sen. Mike Shower, a Mat-Su Republican, asked Zink during Monday’s hearing about the economically debilitating effects of lockdowns and other preventive measures.
“How far until we get to a point where from a medical perspective we can stop doing this?” Shower asked.
Zink said the answer was, once COVID-19 isn’t spreading so fast. In the short term, that depends on people wearing masks and practicing social distancing. But if the vaccine works as promised, that kind of relief could come within six months or so.
“I think the spring and summer are going to feel like very different places,” she said.