As an Alaska committee prepares to vote this week on which groups to include in the next round of COVID-19 vaccinations, people from a wide range of backgrounds and industries — along with those most vulnerable to a severe infection from the virus — are vying for a spot.
Nearly 50 people — including teachers, seniors, seafood industry workers, pilots, judges, veterinarians and utility plant workers — made their case during a public hearing held Monday evening by the Alaska Vaccine Advisory Committee.
The group also received over 300 written public comments.
Teachers, older adults and seafood industry workers made up a large share of the comments.
“As health care professionals, your job should be to protect those who face the greatest medical dangers from COVID,” said Cynthia Pickering Christianson, who identified herself on the call as an Alaska resident over the age of 65. “This committee should vaccinate our oldest residents first.”
Ole Christenson spoke next, and said he agreed, “100 percent.”
“I’m 74 years old, and I have congestive heart failure and lung cancer,” he said. “I think people in my situation should be right up there.”
Across the country, Americans older than 65 make up more than 80% of COVID-19 deaths, despite being only about 16% of the total population.
Getting teachers and other educators vaccinated would help “get us closest back to a functioning society,” said Andrew West, a teacher in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, which currently has the highest per capita COVID-19 case rate in the state.
The Anchorage School District has done a lot to prepare its schools for a return to in-person learning next month, added Thomas Roth, the district’s chief operating officer. “But nothing will supplant what would be increased immunity and reduced susceptibility to the virus,” he said.
Chris Barrows spoke on behalf of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “Our members process seafood in coastal communities and at sea, all either in or linked to remote, coastal communities off the road system and without the support of significant medical infrastructure,” he said. He asked the committee to include seafood workers as essential workers to be prioritized in the next phase.
Vaccine for the virus is currently in short supply across the state, with hospital-based frontline health care workers, residents and staff at long-term care facilities, emergency personnel, community health aides and people performing vaccinations currently eligible to receive it.
Beginning Jan. 4, another tier of people in the state’s first phase will start receiving vaccines. This group includes people who work in health care settings who are at the highest risk of getting COVID-19, are considered essential to the health care system and do regular work that can’t be postponed or done remotely.
It will likely take most of January to be able to move through this entire group, state health officials said Monday.
Monday’s meeting concerned the next eligible group: “Phase 1B,” which a federal advisory committee has said should include essential workers, people 65 years and older and people with high-risk medical conditions that cause increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection.
Alaska’s advisory committee decision is likely to fall loosely in line with the federal recommendations. But they won’t vote until Tuesday, Dec. 29, which workers to classify as “essential,” and whether they need to break down the groups further into additional tiers.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has ultimate authority on whether to adopt these recommendations, but he has so far deferred to the advisory committee.
In addition to the committee’s recommendations, who will get vaccinated in Alaska next will also partially depend on how much vaccine the state is allocated in January.
But they won’t know that number until Tuesday, Dec. 29. even though the new shipment is expected the first week of January. That’s partly why so much is still undecided.
“So it’s not that we’re hiding anything from Alaskans,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said during a call with reporters on Monday. “We have these very tight timelines, and then we just have to respond as quickly as possible to get these out.”
In December, Alaska was federally allocated 62,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine — a per capita-based amount that also included a shipment from the Indian Health Services.
By Monday, just over 12,000 doses had been administered statewide.
Phase 1B most likely won’t begin until February. But it’s possible the timeline could be shorter or longer depending on how much vaccine Alaska is allocated.
It will be many months before vaccine is widely available to the general public.
Zink said Monday that she was thankful to everyone who had provided feedback for the allocation committee.
“We would do anything to have vaccine available for anyone who wanted it right now,” she added. “You all have such great reasons and stories, and we’re excited to get you vaccinated as quickly as humanly possible.”