At a South Anchorage assisted living home, 90-year-old Vera West rested beneath a pile of blankets as a local pharmacy student measured out a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot.
For the past 13 years, pharmacy students at the University of Alaska Anchorage — along with local licensed pharmacists and nurses who volunteer their time to supervise the students — have devoted a couple Saturdays in October to visit assisted living homes around the city, administering flu shots to hundreds of seniors like West.
This year, the students brought along vials of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine so they could administer booster shots to vulnerable residents, too.
West’s daughter, Suzanne Jordan, said she’s thankful for the yearly event. Going to a pharmacy or a doctor’s office to access shots “would be impossible without an ambulance or something to get her,” Jordan said. She and other family members often take the opportunity to get flu shots for the whole family, she said.
The participating students have already had vaccination training and are certified to provide vaccinations, said Renee Robinson, an associate professor of pharmacy with the UAA/ISU Doctor of Pharmacy program.
Each year, the students visit anywhere between 150 and 200 homes, mostly in the Anchorage area. They primarily focuses on smaller assisted living homes that often have just a few residents. These homes can especially use the support because they have more limited resources and transportation options, fewer caregivers and often no medical professionals on staff, Robinson said.
“We try to provide that at-home service that they wouldn’t easily be able to get,” Robinson said.
Flu shots can happen at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccination, and on Saturday, many seniors received both a flu vaccine and a COVID-19 booster — one in each arm.
State health officials have stressed the importance of getting a flu shot this year to protect individual people and Alaska’s vulnerable health care system against yet another highly contagious respiratory illness.
Alaska last year had one of its mildest flu seasons in recorded history, in part because of COVID-19 mitigation measures that cut down on virus transmission, and higher-than-normal flu vaccine uptake.
“The flu is responsible for hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths annually in the United States,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, wrote in an opinion piece this week. “The flu shot is safe, significantly reduces your chance of getting the flu and helps prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death associated with flu.”
Older adults are especially susceptible to severe illness from the flu because their immune systems aren’t as strong.
While some pharmacists around the state have reported hostility and harassment from people who don’t want COVID-19 vaccines, Robinson that the students visiting assisted living homes have so far “had a lot of support, and people happy we’re there,” she said.
“A majority of residents in assisted living homes are high risk, so they’re a little more open to getting vaccinated,” she said.
Pharmacists often act as educators, addressing misinformation and answering questions people might have about vaccines.
“I think being in that safe environment helps to have that fruitful discussion,” Robinson said about talking with people at their homes.
West got her initial COVID-19 vaccinations earlier this year, and Jordan, her daughter, said that was a joyful time because the vaccine made it possible for her to start visiting her mother again.
Before the pandemic, she’d been visiting her mother most evenings after she got off work. For most of 2020, visits with her mom were limited to FaceTime, “but what she really wanted and needed was touch,” Jordan said. “And with the little screen, it didn’t really work. She didn’t understand why I wasn’t visiting.”
West is one of thousands of Alaskans who recently became eligible for COVID-19 booster shots. That group includes those who received their second dose of Pfizer’s vaccine more than six months ago and either: 1) are 65 or older, 2) live or work in high-risk settings or 3) have certain underlying medical conditions.
The FDA and CDC recommendations for the booster shot for higher-risk populations were based on some studies that have shown the effectiveness of the vaccine may decrease over time.
When the pharmacy students offered a booster shot on Saturday, Jordan was on board with her mother receiving one.
“Whatever it takes to keep her safe,” she said.