A year after the first coronavirus case was identified in the state, more and more Alaskans have received the COVID-19 vaccine, signaling a hopeful turning point in the pandemic.
Alaska this month became the first state in the country to open up vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older who lives or works in the state. Alaska is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind New Mexico for most vaccinations relative to population size.
By Friday, 206,877 people — about 36% of Alaskans eligible for a shot — had received at least their first dose, according to the state’s vaccine monitoring dashboard. At least 144,644 people — about 25% of Alaskans 16 and older — were considered fully vaccinated.
Now some newly vaccinated Alaskans are wondering: What’s safe and what isn’t?
We spoke with some top public health officials in Alaska to see how they’re navigating life after vaccination — a situation more residents are experiencing.
Most health officials said they were still cautious and still wearing their masks, and they believed the pandemic wasn’t over just yet. They reflected on small moments of joy that they say wouldn’t have been possible prior to getting vaccinated. They conveyed a sense of hope and relief that has accompanied their new status.
All had closely followed the new guidance recently issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about what fully vaccinated people can and can’t do. The CDC considers individuals to be fully vaccinated once two weeks have passed since they received a second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
What the CDC says
The CDC says that fully vaccinated people can safely gather together without masks, and if they are exposed to someone with COVID-19, they don’t need to quarantine or get tested for the virus as long as they don’t have any symptoms.
Additionally, the CDC says it’s OK for vaccinated people to visit an unvaccinated household indoors as long as none of the unvaccinated people are at a high risk for severe illness from the virus due to their age or health, since the data on whether the vaccines entirely prevent asymptomatic spread is still incomplete.
But on some issues, the agency’s recommendations remain vague or cautious: For example, the CDC continues to recommend against “medium or large-sized gatherings,” but doesn’t define what constitutes a gathering of each size.
The CDC is also still recommending against nonessential travel and encouraging mask-wearing and social distancing when possible, noting that it’s “still learning how vaccines will affect the spread of COVID-19.”
All of the Alaska health officials the Daily News spoke with said they hoped the CDC would clarify and expand some of its recommendations soon.
Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer
Last weekend, Dr. Anne Zink went inside a shop to get her bike fixed — something that she would have avoided prior to get vaccinated.
“So although it was a small thing, it was just great to see everyone again, and to laugh and to hear what their lives have been like and to get that fixed,” she said. “A little boring errand ended up being a great joy.”
Zink, Alaska’s top doctor, became a household name this year, known for her role helping lead the state’s coronavirus response.
She has been fully vaccinated for about two months, and she said it feels a little like rock climbing with a rope to catch her fall.
Pre-vaccination was like solo free climbing, without a safety net, “and trying to make your best decisions as you can,” she said. “And now it feels kind of like you’re top-roping. It’s not perfect — rocks can still fall, things can still happen. But it just feels like there’s a really significant added level of protection.”
Zink said she’s still been cautious even after receiving the vaccine: She still wears her mask when she’s in public, avoids large gatherings and hasn’t eaten out at a restaurant, yet. Case counts in Anchorage and other parts of the state are still high, she pointed out. But in many small ways, life feels different.
She has also started hugging her fully vaccinated friends, and she said she feels good about getting haircuts and other one-on-one indoor interactions where both people are wearing a mask.
Zink’s still having a little trouble adjusting to the possibility of having vaccinated friends come over to her house, even though the CDC says that’s allowable. On the other hand, she said she’s also struggling with the CDC’s recommendation on traveling — which is still to postpone nonessential travel, even if you’re vaccinated.
“I think that post-vaccine, particularly while while wearing good protection while flying, doesn’t seem as high risk,” she said. She misses her now fully vaccinated parents, who live in Colorado, and hopes to be able to visit them soon.
“I have not seen them during this whole pandemic, and they’re getting older,” she said. “So I am really looking forward to traveling.”
Dr. Joe McLaughlin, epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services
Dr. Joe McLaughlin, an epidemiologist with the state, has been fully vaccinated for a couple weeks.
“It’s a real relief,” he said. “I think we’ve all been struggling with isolation. And to be able to interact with your family and friends in a way you haven’t been able to do for the last year, it just feels great.”
For McLaughlin, many of the joys of being vaccinated show up in quiet moments. One recent afternoon, he left work midday to go skiing at Arctic Valley Ski Area for the first time this winter.
“I was so excited to get to ski and get a ride up the mountain, and to ski down,” he said. “I would have not done that prior to getting vaccinated, I would have thought that was too high risk.”
He’s also been feeling more comfortable getting outside and exercising with a small group of friends, especially the ones who are fully vaccinated, and having a small number of vaccinated friends over for dinner.
There are a few things he’d like to do but doesn’t feel quite ready for yet. He wants to visit his fully vaccinated parents in Florida but thinks the potential risk of picking up the virus while traveling is too great at this time.
“I know these vaccines are incredibly effective, around 95% effective for the two mRNA vaccines” from Pfizer and Moderna, he said. “But that still means there’s a 5% chance of getting infected, and I wouldn’t want to risk that for my parents who are both older and at an elevated risk.”
He’s also not comfortable gathering in groups of larger than 10, or eating out at a restaurant.
“I don’t plan on (eating out) anytime real soon,” he said. “I know some people may feel comfortable doing that, and I respect that. But I personally feel like I want to wait until our case counts drop more, and we get higher vaccine coverage rates.”
Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp.
Getting vaccinated was “surprisingly emotional,” said Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff for the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., a tribal health organization that serves a primarily roadless region of Southwest Alaska.
The vaccine represents protection against a virus responsible for a massive outbreak in the region, Hodges said. And it means protection for her as well as the people she works with.
“One of the things that’s hard about having providers that work for you is that you’re asking them to expose themselves and take risks,” Hodges said. “And you didn’t have really anything except for a mask to protect them.”
The biggest change for Hodges post-vaccination was the ability to get together with small groups of friends or family and not have the gathering be dangerous, Hodges said.
But that doesn’t mean it felt normal initially.
After months of masking and social distancing, her first dinner with two others felt weird.
“The whole time, it didn’t feel quite real almost,” Hodges said. They were eating together, unmasked. It was a simple meal, and what she enjoyed most was being able to see other people’s faces.
While Hodges said she isn’t comfortable going out to eat just yet, she said she’s really looking forward to getting back to restaurants once vaccines become widespread across the state.
She also traveled to Anchorage recently, and said she’s looking forward to more travel in the future.
Dr. Bruce Chandler with the Anchorage Health Department
Dr. Bruce Chandler, a medical officer with Anchorage Health Department, said that his work at the health department means he’s always aware of which clusters of COVID-19 are going around the city, and that hyperawareness makes him extra cautious — even though he’s now fully vaccinated.
“We’ve still got a lot of COVID moving around through the community,” he said. “But I will say that probably for the last nine months, I’ve been primarily living through Walmart and Fred Meyer curbside pickup, and really avoiding anything else. Now I’ve got my courage up, and I can go into Costco and buy cat food and kitty litter.”
Chandler says he’s an introvert, so in some ways, he hasn’t missed too much over the last year.
Still: “I felt a big sense of relief when I got the first shot, a potentially life-changing event,” he said. “It’s been a very, very stressful year for many, many people. Getting vaccinated takes some of that stress away.”
Although Chandler himself hasn’t felt the need to dine in at a restaurant, he was asked recently whether a group of younger people who have all been vaccinated can feel good about going out for a pizza.
“I think that’s a reasonable thing for people to do,” given how well the currently available vaccines protect against severe illness, he said.
Chandler said he’s still waiting for the CDC to clarify whether their guidance applies to a workplace, or a health care institution, where all employees are fully vaccinated. His overall stance is for Alaskans to err on the careful side for a little while longer until more Alaskans are vaccinated and less virus is circulating.
“Even as we return to regular life, it’s good to still be cautious,” he said. “It’s not over yet, but we’re looking a lot better than we were in November.”