As COVID-19 case counts in Alaska begin to climb again, health officials say getting the state vaccinated is the best way to tamp down spread — but the pace of vaccination is slowing.
”This is the crux of where we’re at right now with this pandemic,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said this week. “We need to get people vaccinated.”
Health experts have billed high rates of vaccination as a ticket out of the pandemic, and Alaska last month became the first state to offer vaccinations for all residents 16 and older.
The Alaskans most eager to get the vaccine have already received their shots. Now, the new challenge that state officials say they’re facing is how to reach a sometimes more hesitant group of individuals who might get a vaccine if the process were simpler.
That’s prompted a shift in their strategy.
”I think there’s still a large group of Alaskans that would be fine to get vaccinated, but it just needs to be more convenient,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, co-lead with the Alaska Vaccine Task Force.
The push and pull of vaccination rates and case numbers
During the early stages of the state’s effort to vaccinate Alaskans, uptake was swift and the proportion of people fully vaccinated was on an upward trajectory. That trend has flattened recently, McLaughlin told reporters Thursday.
Once case rates drop below 10 per 100,000 people — they’re sitting at about double that these days — and Alaska hits around 70% to 80% of people vaccinated, McLaughlin said the state will be “in really good shape.”
By Thursday, roughly 29% of Alaskans 16 and older were considered fully vaccinated while 41% had received their first shot.
McLaughlin’s current focus is helping dispel misinformation about the new vaccines and give Alaskans the information they need to make the choice to get vaccinated, McLaughlin said.
“Vaccine hesitancy is one of the primary impediments to our ability to get back to normal quickly,” he said.
In Alaska’s most populous city, Anchorage, COVID-19 cases steadily increased by about 75% between the beginning and end of March, “which obviously I find very concerning,” Dr. Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist at the Anchorage Health Department, said in a Wednesday interview.
Previously, after the city’s major spike last year, cases had started falling before leveling off. But now, cases are going up once again, paralleling case rates right before the surge.
Johnston said she’s hopeful that cases won’t climb the way they once did because of increasing vaccinations. But, she said she’s concerned so many appointments are going unfilled every day.
The lowest rates of vaccine uptake are among Alaskans between the ages of 20 and 39, according to Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer. That age group also has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases, which worries her because that age group might continue spreading the illness, she said.
Given the high rate of vaccination among older Alaskans, there’s less of a concern that hospitals may get overwhelmed during a spike in cases.
But, Zink said, people in their 30s and 40s make up a group of people who are hospitalized for extended periods of time. And while they usually do well and get discharged, they may have to also contend with long-term symptoms of the disease as well as medical expenses.
‘The race is not over’
State officials said in order to catch a group less likely to go online and make a vaccine appointment, they’re shifting their strategy away from larger appointment-based clinics to walk-in vaccine opportunities at more convenient locations, like grocery stores or doctor’s offices.
“That’s the group we’re really trying to hit next,” Walker Linderman said. (Alaskans looking for a vaccine clinic near them can visit covidvax.alaska.gov.)
So far, rates of vaccination coverage have varied widely across the state. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the top seven most-vaccinated counties in the U.S. were all in rural Alaska, with Skagway, Yakutat and Petersburg approaching 50% vaccinated as of this week.
But in other parts of the state, like the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the vaccination rate has remained low while the daily case count has been rising.
The state task force is working closely with public health centers in different regions to assess specific concerns and get to the bottom of low vaccination rates, Walker Linderman said Wednesday.
“We’re especially working with the Mat-Su; we’ve got some surveys out there really trying to understand what the issues are,” she said.
Health officials describe the vaccination effort as a race against rising case counts and increasingly contagious variants of the virus.
For now, Alaska is still winning the race, Zink said.
“But the race is not over,” she said. “We’re just going up a hill.”