Alaska News

Alaska coronavirus Q&A: Why is it taking so long for Alaskans to receive vaccinations?

COVID-19, vaccine, Anne Zink, chief medical officer, Mat-Su Regional Medical Center
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Two new COVID-19 vaccines are now available in limited supply in Alaska, but many details about the vaccine rollout are still being finalized.

In the meantime, we’re continuing to answer readers’ virus and vaccine-related questions. Have a question of your own? Ask it in the form at the bottom of this article.

Alaska received over 60,000 doses of vaccine in its December shipment. Why haven’t they all been used yet?

By Saturday, fewer than 14,000 people had received a shot of vaccine — less than a quarter of the total vaccine allocated to the state for the month of December.

“I know that this looks like this is not a super fast process,” said Kelsey Pistotnik, a program director with the state immunization program. “But there’s a lot of planning that has to go into this.”

Every single dose has been earmarked for use, she said. But the strict temperature requirements for the vaccines make careful planning essential.

“The time that we have to store this vaccine at certain temperatures is really limited,” Pistonik said. “So we want to make sure we have as much possible time on that vaccine in the provider’s office when they’re actually going to be administering it.”

[52,900 more doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be headed to Alaska in January]

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The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, and can then only be refrigerated for five days after it’s thawed. The Moderna vaccine has a temperature range — around minus 20 — that’s a bit easier to manage.

Many of the 60,000 December doses are going to be used beginning Monday when the final tier of Phase 1A begins, Pistonik added. The state also didn’t receive its December shipment until midway through the month, which means officials have only had about two weeks so far to get the vaccine distributed.

Health officials said it was likely that the pace of vaccine distribution would pick up in January once the process is smoothed out and the delays associated with the holidays are over.

According to a national tracker, Alaska has the fourth-highest per capita vaccination rate.

If I’m currently eligible for the vaccine, how do I sign up?

Alaska will begin vaccinating those in the final tier of the first phase on Monday. The state’s website, covidvax.alaska.gov, lays out the specific criteria: This group includes “workers in health care settings at highest risk of contracting COVID-19 who are essential to the health care infrastructure and who regularly provide health care services that cannot be postponed or provided remotely.”

Vaccinations for this group will be appointment based and first-come, first-served. If you fit the criteria, you can now make an appointment via a link on the state vaccination website.

In addition, Indian Health Service beneficiaries should contact their providers to see if they are eligible for vaccine now, even if they don’t fit into these initial tiers. Tribes have authority to determine the order and pace of distributing doses allocated by IHS.

I saw that the next group of Alaskans to get vaccinated for COVID-19 will be Alaskans 65 and older. How, when and where can I sign up?

The state on Thursday announced its plan for the next phase of COVID-19 vaccination, Phase 1B, which will begin once Phase 1A is mostly complete — likely by late January or earlier February, said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.

[Amid COVID-19 vaccine confusion, health officials clarify that most Alaska seniors can’t get shots yet]

This new phase will begin with Alaskans 65 and older, who will be followed by “frontline essential workers” 50 and older who work in close proximity with each other and/or the public.

Because the state is still in the process of vaccinating front-line health care workers and others in the earlier groups, in most cases, it is not yet possible for older Alaskans to begin making appointments to get vaccinated, said Zink.

By the end of the month, seniors will likely also be able to make appointments via the link on the state’s vaccination webpage, covidvax.alaska.gov. That link will go to a list of available providers and clinics based on ZIP code who are accepting appointments. The state will announce soon the date and time seniors will be able to start making appointments.

Will Alaska’s January vaccine shipment be used to provide second doses?

No. Second doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine will arrive soon in addition to the federal allotment assigned to the state in January, which is 52,900. Providers are currently in the process of ordering their second doses from the federal government.

Will I have a choice between Pfizer and Moderna vaccine (or the other upcoming vaccines)?

Eventually and in some cases, yes. When you become eligible for vaccine and make an appointment, you will be able to see which vaccine is available, and it may be possible to indicate a preference. If you want to wait until the spring and summer, when future vaccines are likely to be approved, that is an option, said Tessa Walker Linderman, who heads the state’s vaccine task force.

“With patience and time, you could likely receive the vaccine you are most interested in,” Walker Linderman said.

Dr. Liz Ohlsen, a physician with the state, noted that very few differences have been identified so far between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are both mRNA-based vaccines.

I was vaccinated for COVID-19. Will I at any point need to worry about getting tested for the virus, or quarantining if I’m exposed?

Given that no vaccine is 100% effective, if you develop COVID-19 symptoms at some point post-vaccination, officials still recommend you get tested, said Joe McLaughlin, an epidemiologist with the state health department.

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The same goes for quarantining after a potential exposure with someone who has COVID, and continuing to wear a mask when you’re in public, state officials say.

Another important point is that getting vaccinated won’t make your COVID-19 test come back positive, and a test result won’t tell you anything about the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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