Alaskans over 65 will be able to get their first COVID-19 vaccinations starting next week, a timeline accelerated by state officials following a weekend of eligibility confusion.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced the change Monday amid continued criticism over the way the state rolled out this latest allocation of limited vaccine.
State officials now say people 65 and older can schedule appointments starting at noon Wednesday by visiting the state’s vaccine website. People scheduling an appointment are asked to choose a date on Jan. 11 or later, officials say. Appointments will start Monday.
A state allocation committee last week made people 65 and older the next phase of recipients. But state officials said the vaccine wouldn’t be available to the more than 90,000 Alaskans in that group until late this month.
Over the weekend, numerous seniors including former state workers reported a confusing scenario where they were able to make appointments for vaccinations at pharmacies and clinics using the state website before they were eligible.
A shareable scheduling link distributed via email skipped the state’s official vaccine website that instructs users to check their eligibility before signing up.
Palmer and McCarthy resident Patty Yould said she and her husband easily scheduled appointments at the Fred Meyer in Palmer. Yould, who worked in regulatory compliance before retirement, assumed that the online system wouldn’t have allowed them to schedule if they weren’t eligible as seniors.
“I understand this is a new system,” she said. “We certainly are not trying to cut ahead of those who really deserve to get vaccinated before us.”
The union representing retired state employees fired off a critical email to top health officials on Sunday calling on them to fix the website to make sure people couldn’t erroneously sign up for the vaccine, especially a population that’s not computer savvy.
“None of our retirees wish to jump ahead of health care workers, but they were provided credible information that they were now eligible to sign up,” Retired Public Employees of Alaska president Sharon Hoffbeck wrote in the email, provided by a member.
Hoffbeck said the state registration form should have clearly stated eligibility information on the front page, “yet it was instead buried two layers down” and only if users clicked on another link.
The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, replied with information about the new schedule. Zink also said she expected a town hall event this week on vaccine and retirees.
Asked at a media briefing Monday whether the general confusion prompted the state’s decision, Zink said state officials took steps to move up senior vaccinations given the swirl of appointments being made amid email chains and social media messages sharing the link.
Officials said they felt comfortable making the change after they heard most providers were making good progress with the current eligible group of Alaskans: people in health care settings like home health or outpatient facilities.
“We just said, ‘OK, let’s keep moving forward,’” Zink said.
The state opened vaccination clinics last Wednesday for appointments for health care workers and expected them to be filled within hours, according to Tessa Walker Linderman, co-lead of the state’s vaccine task force. Instead, some remained open after a few days so there were appointments left over.
Officials say they are seeing better than expected interest in getting vaccinated among front-line hospital workers — upward of 80%, Zink said — but less among people in outpatient settings who see fewer COVID-positive patients.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the new timeline for senior vaccines at a presentation to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Monday, saying people over 65 are among the groups hardest hit by the virus. Heidi Hedberg, the state’s director of public health, also participated.
“There was a little bit of confusion. We’ve had some Alaskans that are 65 and older register before then,” Hedberg said. “It’s OK. Don’t cancel that appointment.”
But Diane Frank, a 74-year-old Anchorage resident, said the state mixed messages there, too.
Frank scheduled a vaccine appointment for this coming Monday at a clinic listed as giving the vaccine only to seniors. She and her husband got 10 identical emails Monday morning telling them a mistake had been made and asking them to cancel. They did, only to get the state’s press release four hours later telling them not to.
“I have now spent almost four hours trying to reinstate the appointments for my husband and myself. No luck,” Frank said in an email, adding she was told to contact the clinic but doesn’t know how.
Contacted later by phone, Frank said she ended up reaching Hedberg directly and was pleasantly surprised -- and grateful -- that the busy public health director spent 10 minutes talking with her. It appears a third-party contractor may have made a mistake, allowing her to schedule ahead of the approved time.
State officials on Monday said people who made appointments already do not need to cancel them if they fall within the eligible groups (Phase 1A and Phase 1B, Tier 1): health care workers and people 65 and older. People who fall into other groups are asked to cancel their appointments.
New appointments will be added as more providers sign up and more vaccine is available, officials say. There are 427 sites around the state enrolled to provide COVID-19 vaccine though not all have been activated.
Hedberg during her presentation said the state needs more providers to sign up.
Like other states, Alaska has had to prioritize vaccine distribution because of limited supplies and is also experiencing slower than expected rollouts.
Alaska received more than 60,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine produced by both Pfizer and Moderna last month and expects almost 53,000 doses more this month. As of Monday morning, 18,266 people had received their first of two doses as of Monday. State officials last week said they expect the pace to pick up this month.
Right now, generally, only people working in health care settings are eligible for this phase of vaccinations, at least those administered by the state. There are other criteria for tribal members, as well as people served by the military or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The state is working to set up a way for people to get appointment information by phone but doesn’t yet have that capacity, officials say. For now, they encouraged people with questions to email email@example.com or call 907-646-3322.