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Alaska will offer COVID-19 vaccines to tourists starting June 1

Travelers enter a screening station for at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Monday, June 22, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The state of Alaska will begin offering COVID-19 vaccinations to tourists arriving and departing the state through four of its biggest airports starting June 1, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Friday.

“The idea is that we have access to vaccines, so why not use them? So this is what we’re saying to our tourists: If you come to Alaska — and this will start on June 1 — if you come to Alaska, you get a free vaccination,” he said.

The vaccinations will be offered at the Anchorage, Juneau, Ketchikan and Fairbanks airports, said Heidi Hedberg, director of the Alaska Division of Public Health.

She said a “soft rollout” will take place for five days at the end of April in Anchorage to judge interest.

“Right now, we have plenty of vaccines for all Alaskans,” she said when asked whether there is enough vaccine for the plan.

The vaccination program is part of a broader effort to encourage Alaska tourism. Other parts of the effort include a multimillion-dollar tourism advertising campaign and a request for $150 million in economic relief for tourism-related businesses.

The relief program would require approval from the Alaska Legislature. The advertising campaign would use already-authorized money, according to information provided by the governor’s office.

In a typical year, most Alaska tourists arrive in the state by cruise ship. Because of COVID-19, large cruise ships have been halted for a second consecutive summer.

With no large ships bound for the state and overland travel blocked by Canadian quarantine rules, various organizations and corporations have been encouraging independent travelers to fly to the state instead.

Details about the state’s advertising campaign are still sparse, but according to the governor’s office, money from last year’s federal CARES Act will be used to “place targeted advertisements on national television programs and other means of communication throughout the spring and summer, encouraging Americans to visit Alaska as a COVID-safe destination.”

Other CARES Act money will be given to nonprofits that boost tourism, the governor’s office said. The amount and timing of the grants was not immediately available; a spokeswoman for the governor’s office said the administration “wants to be considerate that the process complies with all Alaska laws.”

The Alaska Travel Industry Association operates the state’s existing tourism marketing program. Its president and CEO, Sarah Leonard, said that it isn’t too late for a marketing push to make a difference in Alaska’s tourist season.

“Due to the pandemic, many travelers are on a shorter booking window than normal. They’re waiting until they’re more certain about the vaccine rollout and their own health and safety. But that time is now,” she said.

She said targeting the advertising campaign will be important.

“A successful marketing program is not always about reaching the masses, but reaching those who are more inclined to be Alaska travelers,” she said.

Details of the aid package for tourism-related businesses are still under development. Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer will be speaking with affected communities over the next several weeks, he said, and the administration will incorporate information from those conversations into the final plan.

More is known about the vaccination program, which has been under development since at least late March.

Hedberg said the plan is envisioned as a method to get vaccines to both Alaskans and incoming visitors.

“The vaccination clinics are actually going to be outside of security. And this is the beauty: So for Alaskans that are coming to welcome their family members that live out of state, they can get vaccinated at the airport,” she said.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be used, she said. Each requires a second dose several weeks after the first.

“We recognize that when individuals come up to Alaska, that they may not stay for 21 days or 28 days,” she said, and while she would encourage tourists to come to Alaska, they can get their second shot at home.

If they do stay in the state, she said, they would be able to get the second shot at any vaccination clinic, not just those taking place at the airports.

“Right now what we’re saying is today’s the day. Alaskans, please get educated, please get vaccinated, and starting June 1, it’s going to be opened up for those tourists,” she said.

The program is open to international visitors as well as Americans.

“You have some places — even Japan, I think they have 1% or 2% of the population vaccinated,” Dunleavy said. “Look at Alaska, 65 and older, 66% of our population’s vaccinated.”

“We’re going to now open this up so that it’s more available to all Alaskans and people coming in at the airports,” he said.

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