First shipment of COVID-19 vaccine arrives in Alaska

A doctor receives one of the first vaccinations of the COVID-19 vaccine in Alaska.
A doctor receives one of the first vaccinations of the COVID-19 vaccine in Alaska.(KTUU)
Published: Dec. 14, 2020 at 10:50 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Department of Health and Social Services says the first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Alaska Sunday night.

Starting Monday and going through Wednesday, the vaccine will be taken to health care facilities across the state.

Pfizer and BioNTech made the vaccine that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized last week.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is going to help Alaskans put the worst behind us,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. “We will begin the process of finally getting the upper hand of this pandemic and getting our lives back to normal.”

According to DHSS, the vaccine will first go to hospital-based front-line health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff, emergency medical services and fire personnel providing medical services, community health aides and practitioners and people who are required to perform vaccinations.

“Alaska’s Vaccine Task Force has been preparing for many months to receive these first shipments and to guarantee safe vaccine handling according to the vaccine’s unique requirements,” Tessa Walker Linderman, co-lead of Alaska’s Vaccine Task Force, said in a release. “The task force, led by DHSS and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, continues to coordinate with diverse partners across the state on logistics. We’re ready and excited to begin.”

DHSS says the state is working with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to coordinate the distribution of vaccines across Alaska, including to the remote villages.

“While most states are receiving weekly shipments, Alaska is receiving the entire initial allocation this week because of Alaska’s unique geography and logistical needs,” DHSS said in a release.

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink called the arrival of the vaccine “a big day for the nation.”

“It’s been really tremendous to see the science and data be able to come together, and what we as a collective people have been able to move forward and to see us be able to have vaccination on the ground,” Zink said.

While there is great hope and excitement in having access to the vaccine, Zink reminded reporters Monday during a noon-time press availability that the rollout of the vaccine will be a slow process.

“Rollouts will not be available to everyone initially. But to be able to get it out to those who are most vulnerable and exposed initially is an incredibly exciting point to be,” Zink said.

In a later interview Monday evening, Zink added that the arrival of the vaccine comes with mixed feelings for her.

“It was pretty emotional, honestly, walking out of the emergency department last night,” she said, “because it was my last shift prior to my chance to get vaccinated. And it was like, ‘Oh, this moment has finally come,’ in so many ways.

“It feels like this totally incredible moment,” she continued. “But it is also filled with grief and sadness and guilt: Sadness we’ve lost so many, and knowing we will lose more. What can we do? We’ve got such a good vaccine coming out, so what can we do now? And then, wishing we had it to give to absolutely every person who wants it right away.”

Many Alaskans are certainly looking forward to the pandemic’s end, though not all are jumping to get the vaccine just yet.

“I feel good about it,” said Edward Melseth, an Alaska resident, “but I’m going to wait a while before I take it to see what the side effects really are. It’s new.”

Fellow Alaskan Linda Duck said that she will be getting vaccinated as soon as she can, and that she’s found it interesting the way people have been responding to the vaccine’s rollout.

“I would’ve been the first person in the United States,” she said, “but no one called on me. I think it’s interesting that when the flu vaccine came out, I’m pretty sure everyone just lined up down the street and put their arm out there.”

The full vaccination process isn’t just one step: A full dose is two shots, separated by 21 or 28 days, depending on the vaccine’s manufacturer. Immunity is gained 10 to 14 days after the second shot, said Dr. Michael Bernstein, chief medical officer for Providence Alaska.

Shots will be available to front-line staff within the hospital system beginning Wednesday morning, Bernstein said.

He expected that by March, the hospital workforce should see the benefit from this first phase of vaccinations. The community at large likely won’t see a reduction in viral spread until this summer after more people get the vaccine, he said. Bernstein described the mood on the hospital campus as hopeful. The arrival of the vaccine feels like “light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

According to the DHSS, this first shipment included 35,100 Pfizer doses with 11,700 doses allocated by the Indian Health Service to Alaska’s tribes.

Across the U.S., health care workers have begun taking the vaccine, the Associated Press reported.

While a public relations firm has been hired to represent DHSS during the pandemic — including documenting of the vaccine’s arrival in Alaska — independent media were not granted the same access to witness and record the vaccine’s historic arrival overnight. Alaska’s News Source will continue to request transparent and independent media access from DHSS as we seek to bring you these important images and continue to cover the state’s response to the pandemic.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information from Zink and Bernstein.

Beth Verge contributed to this report.

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