Alaska officials anticipate COVID-19 vaccine decisions, distribution

Have questions or concerns about the vaccine? We have answers.
Published: Dec. 1, 2020 at 11:04 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaskans could see a limited distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine here in the state by mid-month, according to state health officials. The anticipation of the vaccine comes as the state’s largest city enters a new modified “hunker down” phase, in which restaurants will be required to close to indoor dining, and other businesses will be limited to 25% capacity.

It’s also the middle of flu season, and state health officials are urging Alaskans to get both the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available.

The federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, is meeting Tuesday to discuss nationwide prioritization recommendations. Alaska’s COVID-19 vaccine planning team is meeting Thursday to discuss state-specific priorities.

During a media availability Monday, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink and others involved in the vaccine distribution process for Alaska answered questions from the media, including dispelling some misinformation the team has heard regarding the vaccine’s development. Here’s a look at some of those top questions or responses to misinformation, as discussed by officials in that press briefing:

Are any vaccines currently approved for use?

No. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be discussing the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 10 and Moderna’s vaccine on Dec. 17. Both vaccines have applied for an Emergency Use Authorization, which is not full licensure.

Can Alaska maintain the Ultra-Cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine?

Yes. Pfizer’s shipper can maintain ultra-cold temperatures for up to 20 days with dry ice, says Tessa Walker-Linderman, co-lead of Alaska’s Vaccine Task Force. The vaccine can also remain at refrigerated temperatures for up to five days, she said.

“There’s been significant concern as to whether hospitals and communities would have to purchase ultra-cold freezers,” Walker-Linderman said, but the vaccine does not require that infrastructure to receive it. Another good sign, she said, is that Moderna’s vaccine is only about a week behind Pfizer, which, if approved, will allow another method of delivery, because it can be stored at a more regular freezer temperature of -20 to -25 degrees Celsius.

How can we trust a vaccine that’s been developed so quickly?

“No steps were missed in the process of this,” said Zink. “All the normal steps were taken.”

She compared the vaccine development to technology.

“Just as your phone gets faster as we have more technology to build on the process of understanding and making vaccines becomes faster the more that we understand the vaccine process.”

With such a low mortality rate and flu-like symptoms, should I bother getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

The answer to this question is more complicated. Zink says despite comparisons to the flu, the case mortality rate of COVID-19 is much higher than influenza, which is not the only consideration to be made.

“When we look at the case fatality rate-- the chance that I get a disease and pass away from that disease-- last year from influenza in the state of Alaska, that was 0.14%,” Zink said in Monday’s media availability. “Currently in Alaska the case mortality rate that I get COVID and die of COVID is 0.4%.”

So far, 120 Alaskans have died with COVID-19, and one non-resident has died in the state. The state’s first death occurred in April.

Zink cites state epidemiology data, which shows that 11 Alaskans died from influenza in the 2019-2020 flu season; 8 were adults and 3 were children. The previous year saw 16 adults and two children die from the flu. But the mortality rate is not the only consideration, Zink said. Because we have a flu vaccine, fewer people get the flu, Zink said. “We not only need to think about case fatality but how many people are susceptible to the disease. Both of those things really matter.”

Zink suggests any Alaskan discuss with their doctor whether they should get a vaccine based on their individual health history.

When it comes to whether the COVID-19 vaccine will make a difference, Zink said both the flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine will be important. “However, with COVID, many more people are susceptible to it,” Zink said. " We see more people dying from it, we see more people being sick from it, and we see more long-term complications from it in almost every age category; so the COVID vaccine is going to be really important.”

Will the vaccine work?

Zink says the initial data on COVID-19 vaccines show that it is more effective than the flu vaccine at protecting from the disease. Moderna said final data from its trial show its vaccine is 94% effective; Pfizer says its vaccine is 95% effective after its trial run. Read more about the two vaccines’ development here.

The CDC says that even when the influenza vaccine is “well-matched” to the strains of flu going around, the flu vaccine is about 40% to 60% effective.

Can we rely on herd immunity instead of a vaccine?

Zink says herd immunity comes when many people are vaccinated. “The more people we have vaccinated, this is where we talk about herd immunity,” Zink said. “The more people we have who cannot get the disease, or (cannot) get really sick from the disease and can’t spread it to others, that’s where it can make a big difference,” Zink said.

She says removing the option for the virus to spread from person to person will slow down the disease’s transmission overall.

“When we think of how effective a vaccine is, it depends on how many Alaskans actually get it,” Zink said. “So we can have a very efficacious vaccine that isn’t super effective if people don’t take it.”

Can the state, my employer, or schools require the vaccine?

Not at this point. As an Emergency Use Authorization vaccine, schools and private businesses cannot require the vaccine, Zink said. There has been no discussion at the statewide level to mandate vaccination, she said.

If the FDA gives a vaccine full licensure, that may change, but that process has not yet been applied for.

Will this vaccine change my DNA?

No. Zink says this question is a big piece of misinformation. Zink says the vaccine does not get into your DNA, and is incapable of doing so.

Will I still have to wear a mask after getting a vaccine?

This is unclear. Zink says studies of the vaccine so far have looked at how many people get COVID-19 and how many people get severely ill with it. She says it’s not yet known whether a vaccinated person would still have the virus present in their nose and could spread it to other people.

Who will be prioritized?

To Be Determined. The federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meets Tuesday to issue its recommendations to states. Alaska’s committee meets Thursday to make state-specific recommendations.

The ACIP is considering healthcare workers, critical infrastructure workers, people at high-risk due to underlying conditions, and people over 65 years of age for prioritization. Walker-Linderman, with Alaska’s Vaccine Taskforce, says the state has been working with hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and long-term care facilities to plan for vaccine distribution. “Alaska has some unique challenges,” Walker-Linderman said Monday. " So we are looking to our allocation committee to provide further guidance.”

Are nurses and doctors reluctant to get the vaccine?

Zink says she and other doctors, as scientists by training, want to see the studies and data firsthand, but that she hears positive things.

“When I talk to other people in my position, state health officials across the country, other people who are more intimately involved in this vaccine, I am hearing very little hesitation,” Zink said. “The data looks excellent.”

She said if the data looks as good and as safe as it’s being touted, she would take the vaccine when her priority group is scheduled and recommend it to others.

What do the studies show with children?

Zink says the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have not yet been studied in children.

When and where can I get a COVID-19 vaccine in Alaska?

To Be Determined. The federal and state priority plans will determine who is eligible for the first rounds of the vaccine, and other vaccines becoming available will affect the number of doses available.

Zink compared the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine in Alaska to the schedule of the sun. “Coming this winter, we will start to get little bits of vaccine like we get a little bit of sun,” she said. “And by spring equinox, it will be a noticeable difference, and by summer solstice, it should hopefully be widespread that people are getting it.”

The CDC told the State of Alaska to expect weekly shipments throughout the winter and spring, Walker-Linderman said. Other pending vaccines receiving Emergency Use Approval will result in more vaccines being available.

The state Vaccine Task Force is working with communities and businesses to determine distribution sites. Some communities may take a single-location approach, much like a “flu shot fair,” in which individuals come to one site. Pharmacies and other vaccine providers like primary care physicians are also involved in the process.

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