As recently as mid-March, Alaska was at the top of U.S. states for its vaccination rate. The nation-leading campaign was a credit to Alaska’s state health care officials, municipal health workers, tireless nurses and pharmacists administering the vaccines, and ordinary Alaskans who signed up in droves to get inoculated against the worst pandemic since the 1918 flu, which devastated Alaska communities.
In the three weeks since, Alaska’s fall from a high place has been dramatic, and it’s time to sound the warning bells. Although our state’s vaccination campaign has continued and those responsible for it are working just as hard as ever, sign-ups for vaccine appointments — and even walk-in clinics — have slowed alarmingly. Not only has Alaska lost its No. 1 spot for the percentage of residents who have had at least one vaccine shot, it has slumped to 14th place.
Since near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been clear that a return to normal life and economic activity would only be possible through mass vaccination. Trying to achieve herd immunity by letting the disease run its course would result in millions of American deaths — and variants of the disease have been shown to reinfect those who have had COVID-19 before, making natural immunity likely impossible without a vaccine.
Fortunately, we have vaccines. They are incredibly effective, were developed in record time and have been tested in clinical trials by tens of thousands of volunteers. Their side effects are minor — especially compared to the effects of the disease itself. All three of the vaccines now approved in the U.S. do an excellent job at preventing moderate and serious cases of COVID-19, and new studies are showing they’re remarkably effective at preventing transmission of the disease altogether, not just minimizing its effects. Data from a new study released by the CDC in late March shows that under real-world conditions, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 90% effective at stopping COVID-19 infection altogether, and 100% effective at preventing serious cases.
To seriously slow the transmission of COVID-19, it appears we will need at least 60% of Alaskans vaccinated against the disease; to stop it, we’ll need more like 75% to 85%. That figure will be tough to reach before a vaccine is approved to inoculate the approximately 20% of Alaskans who are younger than 16. Luckily, trials are showing the vaccines are also effective and safe for teenagers — perhaps even more effective than for adults.
So where are we right now? Not even halfway to achieving herd immunity, and the vaccine uptake rate is slowing noticeably. We’ve let our foot off the gas, and it’s happening at the exact wrong time. Case rates are climbing again, with Alaska above 20 cases per 100,000 residents and test positivity rates above 3% — the state’s goal is to keep the rate below 2% — after achieving lows in February and early March. Despite one-third of Alaskans having at least one vaccine shot, case counts are still growing among those yet to be protected. More Alaskans will die because of COVID-19, and with three approved vaccines and tens of thousands of doses in hand, that’s needless.
What can we do to get our numbers back up to their former best-in-the-U.S. status? The good news is that all of the elements necessary are in place: Plenty of places to get inoculated, plenty of times available (some without an appointment), plenty of vaccine supply. All that’s required is for Alaskans to recognize the necessity of getting vaccinated for public health and our state’s economic recovery.
We all have a part to play in the goal of getting Alaska covered: Those of us who have already been vaccinated have a responsibility to check in with our friends and family members to make sure they’re planning on getting protected too — and to help answer any questions they might have. Some businesses have taken a leading role by providing employees accommodations for getting vaccinated, such as time off to get their shot or even incentives for vaccination. And state and municipal health officials should take the lead by identifying communities where vaccine coverage is poor and mounting education campaigns and targeted clinics to help bring those numbers up.
If we work together and get Alaska vaccinated, we can beat COVID-19 by early summer. But we’re all going to have to do our parts to get there.
Appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine can be found at www.anchoragecovidvaccine.org or by contacting the state call center at 907-646-3322.