Anchorage

What’s bringing people to Anchorage’s COVID-19 vaccine clinics: Work mandates, high case counts and good timing

On a recent afternoon at an Anchorage COVID-19 vaccine clinic, no lines of excited people wrapped around the block. A row of stickers proudly proclaiming someone’s newly vaccinated status lay nearly untouched at a table by the door.

Compared to the clamoring demand for vaccines earlier this year, the small but steady flow of people who are still making their way to clinics to get those shots reflects Alaska’s stalled vaccination effort.

Nearly a year has passed since the first vaccine shipments arrived in the state, and just over half of all Alaskans are vaccinated.

Alaska’s pace of vaccination slowed over the summer, after initially leading the nation early on in the rollout. By late October, the portion of Alaskans 12 and older who had received at least their first dose of the vaccine hovered around 64%, up slightly from the previous month but still lagging behind other states.

Those getting vaccinated this week described a range of reasons for waiting until now to get the shot — busy lives, work mandates, recent illness, encouragement from others.

On Thursday at a state-contracted vaccine clinic in Tikahtnu Commons, next door to a Pita Pit and in a storefront that previously housed a Men’s Wearhouse, the majority of visitors were there for boosters, including a group of co-workers from a nearby nail salon who said their daily close proximity to dozens of people made them want to protect themselves as much as possible.

Mychal Lorette, 29, from Eagle River, saw a sign out front for vaccines and decided to pop in. She said she had been waiting a while to get her first dose.

“I’ve never been against it all,” she said. She has two small children at home and was worried about getting “super sick” from the second dose in particular, and not being able to find child care for the couple days she would potentially be out of commission.

[September was Alaska’s deadliest pandemic month. Here’s what that might tell us about the future of COVID-19 in the state.]

Her husband had torn his ACL and a lot of energy went into preparing him for surgery, so getting vaccinated “just kept getting pushed back,” Lorette said. “We were waiting until his job was easier, so he could actually stay at home with the kids.”

“Now his job is different, and he has way more flexibility, so if I’m sick, he’ll be able to take care of them while I’m sick,” she said. “And I could have gotten a babysitter or something, but not for like, two days.”

Lorette said news about the delta variant’s rapid spread through the state wasn’t really what prompted her to get the shot. It was more a matter of knowing she’d have child care if she needed it.

“It’s honestly been on my mind that I need to get it done for a long time,” she said.

Aurora Dell, one of the nurses administering the shots, said the last few months working at a vaccine clinic have felt much different from early on in the vaccine rollout.

Many of the people coming in to get shots now “are weary about it, they’ve definitely gotten on the wrong side of the internet for their research, they’re hesitant,” Dell said Thursday. “Versus in the beginning where it was, everyone was grateful for what we’re doing.”

As vaccine mandates at some businesses have taken effect, some people coming in to get shots are bitter about being required to do so.

Kim Wells, another one of the nurses running the clinic, estimated that about half of the people coming in to get their first shot didn’t want it — “and of that 50%, about half of them are angry,” she said. “They’re facing losing their 20-year career, their pension.”

Earlier that morning, Wells vaccinated one service member who asked her if she could just shoot the vaccine into the air and fill out a vaccine card for him anyway, she said.

“He said, ‘I’ve served in wars, I’ve done all these things to serve my country, and I’m being forced to do this,’ ” she said. “He was really angry. I mean, he barely spoke to me.”

Wells thinks one hurdle a lot of people have to overcome to get the shot is a fear of needles.

“The No. 1 comment I’ve heard, like a trillion times, is ‘I don’t like needles.’ And then the response afterwards is always, ‘That was it? That is all?’ They had it really worked up in their minds,” she said.

In Midtown Anchorage, at a Loussac Library pop-up clinic, the pace of vaccination was steady.

Prospective vaccine seekers stood in a line of five or so people, some with appointments, some who were walk-ins, some seeking flu shots as well as COVID-19 boosters and first or second doses.

There was some confusion as several people showed up in hopes of receiving a booster shot only to be sent home since some boosters had not yet cleared all necessarily administrative hurdles.

By Thursday, federal officials had authorized Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots, but many clinics were waiting for final guidance from the state health department. Pfizer booster shots were approved for older and high-risk Americans earlier this fall.

[U.S. vaccine mandates create conflict with defiant workers]

Holly Hartzell and her husband, Timothy Howard, were standing in line for their first dose of the vaccine that afternoon. Hartzell found out she had lung cancer about a month ago, which she said motivated her to get the shot.

“And then he’s getting it because he’s my husband. And I’m pretty high risk,” Hartzell said. “So, that’s why I’m getting it, but I’m really not a pro-vaxxer.”

She doesn’t like people telling her what to do, Hartzell said, and doesn’t like being under “the thumb of government.”

Hartzell said her doctor wanted her to get at least one dose before an upcoming surgery. She wasn’t looking forward to getting it, though, and said she was worried about potential reactions. But afterward, the two had received their doses and sat together in one of the back rows of the Wilda Marston Theater for their observation period.

A few rows down sat Myongsuk Robuck, who was there for her Pfizer booster shot after getting her original doses in February and March. She spoke to her doctor, who told her to get it. A friend who was with her had sought a Moderna booster, which wasn’t yet available, but was still going to get a flu shot.

“I don’t want to be sick,” Robuck said.

She goes to the gym frequently to exercise and said she really didn’t want to pick up the virus from anyone. Plus, she said, it’s what you’re supposed to do.

Monitoring those in the rows at the theater was Eva DuRant. She’s been with the Anchorage Health Department for 27 years in several positions. Currently, she’s a family service counselor and also working on COVID-19 — “anything they need,” she said, working at one point as a contact tracer and monitor.

She’s there in case people have a reaction to the vaccine, and she checks them in at a table before offering a “Conquer Covid” plastic vaccine card sleeve and directing them to a seat in the theater.

Durant said she’s mostly heard from people who decided to get the vaccine now because of the large jump in cases recently and because of encouragement from family members. She thinks the vaccination pace is increasing.

“When we first started doing these, people were kind of not sure,” DuRant said. “And I think as time progressed, they became more or less sure.”

On a recent Friday evening at the Jewel Lake Tastee Freez, a free ice cream, coffee or soda was being offered to those who got a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic being run inside the restaurant.

One patron, Charles Blood, said he got his vaccine because of an upcoming trip to Hawaii. He said he had missed out on trips to Hawaii before and didn’t want to miss out again.

Others said they appreciated the clinic because of the convenience for residents living in the Sand Lake area — most clinics in Anchorage are located farther away. One woman who said she was nervous about vaccines said it was helpful to get a shot in a more relaxed, non-medical setting.

Charlie Pearson, a health care mobile strike team coordinator with Visit Healthcare, was in charge of the clinic. She said the last month has seen a significant rush of people getting their first shots.

The clinic — which is open at Tastee Freez every Friday in October from 5 to 8 p.m. — has averaged about 30 appointments each Friday, plus walk-ins.

Marinela Daniel, a nurse administering the shots, elbow bumped a patient she’d just vaccinated who said he was so nervous about getting shots that he sometimes passed out after receiving one.

“We did it!” Daniel said, smiling at him.

Daily News photojournalist Emily Mesner contributed reporting.

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