JUNEAU — Southeast Alaska’s tribal health organization has donated 300 COVID-19 vaccines for a vaccination drive at the Alaska State Capitol following an outbreak in the building.
The first legislative workers received their shots Friday from vials provided by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. Additional people will be vaccinated in the coming week.
About 450 people work in the Capitol, including legislators, aides and nonpartisan staff. Although the building is closed to the public, legislators must still vote in-person and are holding most committee meetings in-person as they debate legislation.
“It’s really going to make a huge difference in the safety factors and the comfort of the people who come into this quasi-petri dish,” Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said about the vaccination effort.
Last week, one state legislator tested positive amid a small outbreak in the Capitol that sickened at least five people and forced at least 20 legislators and staff to quarantine themselves at home or in a hotel. The state House and Senate canceled some committee meetings, disrupting work.
“I mean, the potential is quite scary,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.
“You know, if we cannot have members on the floor to run this organization, we would not be doing our duty to the state,” Stevens said. “So it’s entirely possible that if (cases) increase and we see these other variants out there that we may be in that position. So we’re working very hard to try to get everyone that wants to be vaccinated, vaccinated.”
Jessica Geary, director of the nonpartisan agency that operates the Capitol on behalf of the Legislature, said she had been working with Juneau-based legislators since the start of the year to find a way to vaccinate workers here. She said Stevens and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, suggested contacting SEARHC.
Eric Gettis, vice president of clinics at SEARHC, said his organization was willing to help because last week’s COVID-19 outbreak in the Capitol made the need clear.
Both the state of Alaska and organizations that receive Indian Health Service vaccine shipments — such as SEARHC — receive their allotments at the start of the month and can rework their schedules more easily right now.
“I didn’t want them to close the Capitol building down just because of this” outbreak, he said. “That hurts everybody.”
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said that because the state expanded vaccine eligibility this week to essential workers, it no longer felt like legislators or staff would be jumping ahead in priority. Legislators had opposed an earlier plan to vaccinate the Capitol because of that concern. Micciche said he intends to get his first vaccine shot next week.
Gettis said providing vaccines for the Capitol will not disadvantage SEARHC’s other efforts in Southeast Alaska. Its mission is to improve health in the region, and most of the area’s smaller communities “are almost done” with their vaccinations.
Capitol staff qualify as “essential workers” under the expanded vaccine guidelines and many live in Juneau, which has the largest number of unvaccinated people in Southeast Alaska.
“For SEARHC, this really fits our mission of Alaska Native people working with their communities to provide the best health care possible. And it just seemed like a real no-brainer to keep the Legislature going and business rolling. Because that helps everybody,” Gettis said.