Confusion surrounding Alaska’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has led to some Alaskans trying to book vaccination appointments before they’re eligible to receive the vaccine, state health officials said Saturday.
Tessa Walker Linderman, who helps lead the state’s vaccination effort, and Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in an interview that they’ve heard about instances of older Alaskans attempting to make appointments over the weekend via the state website, even though they are not yet eligible.
Although Alaskans 65 and older will be the next group eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, most will have to wait at least a few weeks to sign up for an appointment, the two state health officials clarified.
The reason for that delayed timeline is that the state is still in the process of vaccinating the initial eligible groups, which are mostly composed of front-line health care workers plus staff and residents of long-term care facilities, Walker Linderman said.
“There’s definitely been a lot of miscommunication on that specific topic with a lot of email chains going out to a lot of seniors that we were not a part of,” Zink said. “We are trying to help clarify that.”
On Thursday, the state announced the lineup for the next rounds of vaccination (Phase 1B), with adults 65 and older at the top of the list, followed by certain essential workers with public-facing jobs along with those who live in congregate settings like prisons and shelters.
But that announcement came weeks in advance of when the actual vaccinations would occur.
The fact is that right now, the state is in the process of booking appointments for health care workers in “Phase 1A tier three,” a large group made up of roughly 40,000 people that will likely take at least the rest of the month to vaccinate.
Walker Linderman thinks the timing of the announcement has likely been confusing for seniors who heard that they were next up to receive vaccine nearly a month before they were actually able to start receiving shots.
“I think it was just maybe unfortunate timing that we’re rolling out the actual vaccination of (Phase 1A) tier three at the same time that we announced the subsequent Phase 1B tiers, and so I think that might be part of the confusion,” Walker Linderman said.
She thinks that people who heard they were eligible in Phase 1B probably went over to the state’s website and saw that appointments were being scheduled.
“And although it does say pretty clearly on our website that this is just for health care workers in Phase 1A, people may have not seen that, and just went and scheduled an appointment,” she said.
Part of this is a website issue: Once you click on the shareable link that allows you to find a provider to schedule an appointment, there’s no mention of eligibility and limits on who can make an appointment.
Walker Linderman said that she heard from many clinics in the past few days that have been following up in response to appointments being made to make sure that those registering online are health care workers who meet all the criteria for Phase 1A tier three.
“We are working on our website to clear that up, and I know that our (vaccine distributors) are as well,” she said.
In addition to the complicated messaging, some regions of the state have already been able to start vaccinating their elders with doses of vaccine that was separate from the state allocation.
That’s because the Indian Health Service, the Department of Transportation and Veteran Affairs do not have to strictly adhere to the state’s phases and tiers in their allocations of vaccine.
As a general rule, though, Alaska seniors without tribal affiliations who don’t live in a long-term care facility will need to wait to make an appointment.
State health officials said they are still in the process of figuring out the best way for seniors and others in Phase 1B to sign up for vaccination once it’s their turn, especially since it’s such a large group: There are more than 90,000 Alaskans over the age of 65.
“It will be that same link — going to our website will still be an option for scheduling that appointment,” Walker Linderman said. “But there may be additional options as well.”
It may be possible for Alaskans to go to their regular health care providers, or to a community center hub, she said. The plan for the Phase 1B rollout is still getting worked out, and the best way to stay up to date is to keep checking the state’s vaccine website at covidvax.alaska.gov.
“We urge Alaskans to really pay attention to where we’re at, and which tier is coming up next,” Zink said.
But she said that seniors and others don’t have to worry about missing out on their chance to get vaccinated, even if they’re not checking the state’s website for updates every day.
“We will continue to fill in those other tiers even as we move on,” she said. “So even if we’ve moved on to tier two, if someone who’s older decides they want to get vaccinated, they’ll be able to get vaccinated whenever they choose.”
Order of Alaska’s vaccine rollout
Phase 1A, tier one (available as of Dec. 15):
• Long-term care facility staff members
• Long-term care facility residents
• Hospital-based front-line health care workers and hospital personnel who are frequently exposed to COVID-19 patients, particularly those performing the highest risk procedures or who spend extended periods of time bedside and whose absence from work would compromise the ability of the hospital to continue functioning.
Phase IA, tier two (available as of Dec. 15)
• Front-line EMS and fire service personnel providing medical services, who are frequently exposed to COVID-19 patients and whose absence from work would compromise the ability of these critical medical services to continue.
• Community health aides/practitioners
• Health care workers proving vaccinations to identified populations in Phase 1A
Phase 1A, tier three (available to schedule appointments as of Dec. 30, vaccine clinics available starting Jan. 4)
• 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.
They must fit the following criteria:
1. Have direct patient contact, or have direct contact with infectious materials from patients; and,
2. Provide essential services in a health care setting that cannot be offered remotely or performed via telework; and,
3. Provide a service in a health care setting that cannot be postponed without detrimental impact to the patient’s short-term or long-term health outcomes.
Phase 1B, tier one (likely available late January, vaccine clinics TBA)
• People 65 and older
Phase 1B, tier two (likely available late February, vaccine clinics TBA)
• Front-line essential workers* who are 50 and older
• People living or working in other congregate settings not covered in Phase 1A
Phase 1B, tier three (vaccination timeline TBA)
• People 55-64 years old
• All people 16 and older living in “unserved communities”
• Front-line essential workers* 16-50 years old with two or more high-risk health conditions
Phase 1B, tier four (vaccination timeline TBA)
• People 50 and older with two or more high-risk health conditions
• Front-line essential workers* 16-50 years old not covered in tiers one to three
*The state defines front-line essential workers as “people who are working in sectors essential to the functioning of society and are at substantially higher risk of exposure to the virus because their work-related duties must be performed on-site and involve being in close proximity (within six feet) to the public or to coworkers.”