Alaska News

Alaska tries to boost vaccination rates, and considers incentives, as concerns about delta variant rise

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Over the past three weeks, Alaska’s coronavirus case counts have started to tick up again — and state health officials say the highly contagious delta variant is likely driving the increase.

With the end of summer on the horizon, Alaska’s vaccine task force says it is currently strategizing ways to boost the state’s vaccination rate, such as potential vaccine incentives.

They say vaccination is the best tool they have to fend off worse variant-fueled outbreaks during the colder months when Alaskans spend more time closer together indoors, helping viruses spread more easily.

Matt Bobo, Alaska’s immunization program director, said his department has received federal funding that they’re hoping to use to launch state-level incentives to boost the state’s vaccination rate.

As vaccine supply began outpacing demand on a national level, the CDC is allowing these kinds of incentives, Bobo said.

His department is currently in the process of creating a proposal that will be submitted to the CDC, and Bobo said he would have more details to share once that proposal was finalized.

This spring, the state granted $1 million to the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, which then distributed smaller grants to local chambers around the state.

The more localized, community-level vaccination incentives — such as a vaccine lottery in Fairbanks, $100 gift cards in Bethel and more — have had a positive outcome.

“The community knows what their members want and what motivates them,” said Heidi Hedberg, the director of the Alaska Division of Public Health. “This was a great example of that partnership between the business sector, public health and the community. And that was wildly successful.”

The state, however, still has no plans to mandate vaccination on the state level, added Hedberg.

“Vaccination is voluntary,” she said.

[The COVID-19 delta variant is causing worry worldwide. Here’s the latest on Alaska’s outlook.]

By Friday, about 42% of Alaska’s total population was fully vaccinated — and just 56% of eligible Alaskans 12 and up had received a shot. That’s a smaller percentage than many health officials would like, and below the 70-80% threshold needed to reach herd immunity.

Meanwhile, a recent variant report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services showed that 37 cases of the delta variant had been identified in Alaska via sequencing efforts so far. That’s likely an undercount because less than a third of reported cases are sequenced.

Overall COVID-19 case counts saw a sharper rise on Thursday and Friday, with an average of nearly 70 new cases for each of those days after much lower daily average counts through the beginning of June.

The delta variant is concerning to epidemiologists because of how easily it passes between people — “it is likely the most transmissible variant that we’ve seen so far,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist. He said a recent rise in case counts was likely attributed to the delta variant.

The good news is that the three COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S. appear to be highly effective at preventing severe illness caused by the delta variant, which has recently become the most common strain in the country. It has been linked to more severe increased cases, hospitalizations and deaths in India, the United Kingdom, Israel and parts of the U.S.

[What you need to know about the highly contagious coronavirus delta variant]

But state health officials say they’re concerned that Alaska’s current vaccination rate, with about two out of every five Alaskans considered fully vaccinated, may not be high enough to prevent future outbreaks, especially during the fall and winter.

That’s why a major focus right now is encouraging more Alaskans to get vaccinated soon so the state is in a better position come fall, McLaughlin said.

It can take five to six weeks to become fully vaccinated with both doses of the mRNA vaccines — “so really getting people vaccinated now, before fall starts, is going to make a big difference in our ability to prevent a big uptick in cases due to the delta variant, as well as any other new variants that may emerge,” McLaughlin said.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.