The first Alaskans to receive a dose of COVID-19 vaccine last month recently became eligible to get their second shot this week, making them the first people in the state to get a full course of the vaccine.
While thousands more Alaskans wait to become eligible to receive the limited-supply vaccine, a select group is now protected against COVID-19 — helping the state inch slowly toward herd immunity.
So far, just over 25,000 people statewide have received their first dose of the vaccine manufactured by either drugmakers Pfizer and BioNTech or Moderna, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services.
And while the numbers don’t yet show that anyone has completed their vaccine series, health officials this past week said that several people have indeed gotten their second dose — there’s just a lag in reporting that data. A second dose is administered three to four weeks after the first shot, depending on which vaccine someone receives.
Some of the first people eligible for the vaccine started getting shots in mid-December, after the first doses arrived here. Given the highly limited supply of doses, that state government determined that those who live and work in long-term care facilities as well as health aides, emergency personnel and frontline medical workers should be among the first to receive a dose.
Teanna Hehnlin, an assistant clinical manager at Providence Alaska Medical Center who works in a COVID-19 unit, was among the first in the state to be fully vaccinated after receiving her second shot Wednesday.
Vaccination provides a level of peace of mind that she didn’t have in previous months. Now, if she’s exposed, her body can fight off the infection faster than before, she said. She will still wear the same protective gear so as not to spread the illness — face mask, face shield, extra garb — but at least she can feel safer.
“I think this COVID vaccine is our fighting chance,” Hehnlin said.
And at this moment, a COVID-19 vaccine is critical. The pandemic is coursing through all corners of Alaska, filling up hospital beds and intensive care units.
Hehnlin said that not everyone sees what she sees inside the doors of Alaska’s largest hospital. That can make it hard for people to empathize with those who are sick, she said.
“This is nothing like we’ve ever seen before,” said Hehnlin, who’s worked as a nurse for 15 years.
Hehnlin emphasized that those who survive COVID-19 may continue to deal with the consequences of the illness long after leaving the hospital: needing speech therapy after a COVID-19-related stroke, needing to use an oxygen machine or continued physical therapy.
In addition to front-line medical workers, some of the state’s emergency personnel have also received their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Jodie Hettrick, Anchorage Fire Department chief, received her second shot this past week. The department is trying to get as many first responders vaccinated as possible.
Uptake in the department has been good, Hettrick said, with around about 75% of staff opting to receive the shots. And given that no one has reported significant side effects, Hettrick thinks that number will continue to rise.
“I’m very proud to say that our people trusted the vaccine and trusted the information that we gave them and are stepping up to get the vaccination so that they will not get sick,” Hettrick said.
Working in emergency response during a pandemic has been stressful, knowing that responders could contract or spread the virus, Hettrick said. A few people who work for the department have gotten quite sick from the virus, including a couple who ended up hospitalized, she said.
“When our people get sick or they’re just exposed to the virus, then we can’t have them in the workplace,” Hettrick said.
That impacts staffing as people can’t work while ill or in quarantine, Hettrick said. With firefighters and other emergency responders vaccinated, the entire community’s emergency response can be better maintained without that strain.
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