Alaska on Tuesday broadened an already long list of people eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine to include anyone 16 and older who lives or works in the state.
The change makes Alaska the first U.S. state to remove eligibility requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine, state officials said Tuesday.
Officials announced the milestone almost a year after Alaska marked its first case of the virus that was tied to the deaths of more than 300 Alaskans, left others with lasting health complications and wreaked havoc on the economy statewide.
“Soon, this virus will be a preventable disease if people choose to get vaccinated,” the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said during a briefing Tuesday.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy — who tested positive for the virus and experienced mild symptoms last month — said the illness was both isolating and an inconvenience, which is why he will be getting a vaccine. He said the broadened vaccine eligibility puts Alaska on a path toward herd immunity.
“I think we’ll get enough Alaskans that want to be part of this process that we’re going to put this behind us as quickly as possible,” Dunleavy said during the briefing.
Alaska has so far vaccinated a higher percentage of its population that any other state. By Tuesday, a quarter of its total population was at least partially vaccinated, compared to a national average of about 18%.
Regarding a question about how much vaccine supply the state would have going forward, Zink said it’s hard to know. There have been major vaccine production increases recently. Between the state’s allocation, an Indian Health Service allocation and others, Alaska could have “potentially well over 100,000” doses next month, she said.
The expansion of vaccine eligibility comes just a week after the state opened vaccines up to anyone 16 and older who has a condition that puts them at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 or who works in an essential job (which is defined broadly), as well as all Alaskans over age 55. Educators, health care workers, seniors and others in the state were already eligible under previous guidelines.
But even with the expanded eligibility, thousands of vaccine slots remained open at the start of the week.
Several tribal health organizations using a separate allocation of doses through the Indian Health Service were already vaccinating people ages 16 and older in many communities across the state.
Dunleavy said the open eligibility will give people who were considering getting the vaccine an opportunity to do so.
“There’s a group of Alaskans that have already gotten the vaccine. That’s great,” Dunleavy said. “There’s a group of Alaskans that won’t get the vaccine and don’t want it. I respect that.”
The expansion of eligibility went into effect immediately Tuesday night, according to a statement from the governor’s office. Zink said a statewide vaccine hotline for questions and help would be staffed later than usual Tuesday night, until 8 p.m.
“We know we don’t have enough vaccine in the state of Alaska to do everyone tonight,” Zink said. “But even if you’re thinking about it, let them know and they can help connect you to appointments.”