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COVID-19 updates: Alaska’s health experts offer their views

With vaccine on the ground and more on the way, Alaska’s health team answers some of the most-asked questions.
South Dakota reported 48 new COVID-with only two of them West River.
South Dakota reported 48 new COVID-with only two of them West River.(MGN Online)
Published: Dec. 21, 2020 at 8:31 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Zoom meetings have become the press scrum of yesteryear. Throughout the week, Alaska’s public health team and other stakeholders living through the COVID-19 pandemic meet in virtual rooms to share status updates, future plans, statistics and answer questions.

Recently, with the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine and on its heels, the Moderna vaccine, a Monday vaccine-edition Zoom meeting hosted by UAA’s Center for Human Development has launched for reporters. Below are the day’s biggest takeaways, including a separate virtual town hall event hosted by Bethel-based Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp.

It’s personal

Dan Winkleman, CEO of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. said this morning, on the winter solstice, his mother-in-law died in an Anchorage hospital due to complications from COVID-19. He said one of her last pieces of advice was to “take care of each other and love each other.”

In a region besieged by the COVID-19 virus, with some of the highest case rates in the state and nation, the vaccine is a much-anticipated lifeline. Dr. Ellen Hodges, YKHC’s chief of staff, said unlike other communities, slightly more than half of the region’s 3,341 total cases to date have been under the age of 18, some of whom required hospitalization and intensive care unit-level care. Some of the area’s 37 communities have experienced up to 70% of their population becoming infected, Hodges said. Sixteen people have died.

Distributing the vaccine to the area’s smaller communities has required adaptation to weather and resources. On Monday, Hodges smiled when speaking about the effort to move a new vaccine, newly arrived in the state, to so many far away places so quickly. “As of tonight. All of our village-based health care providers who wanted to receive the vaccine should have received the vaccine. And that is a truly astonishing accomplishment,” said Hodges, who hopes that in time 100% of residents in the region will be vaccinated.

For Winkleman, carrying out his mother-in-law’s wishes means wearing a mask, washing hands, temporarily stopping visits to other households, stopping going to bars and restaurants, and getting the vaccine when it’s your turn, he said. “COVID public health tactics, to a great extent, are only asking that all of us temporarily modify our leisure activities. Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘With freedom comes responsibility.’ Our greatest generation knew that. We should, too,” he said.

Adverse reactions

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Monday that two of the six serious adverse reactions reported to the CDC have occurred in Alaska. As for what to make of the reactions people are reporting, including those that are less severe, Zink said more time and data are needed to determine whether Alaska truly is a stand-out. Her hunch is that when more data comes in, it will show Alaskans are not experiencing more reactions to the vaccine than other states. One thing that may be a factor is the way Alaska elected to receive doses, she said: the state chose to receive monthly instead of weekly shipments, which means the state has been able to vaccinate more people than states which are still awaiting allocations.

Dr. Larry Corey, co-principal investigator in vaccines fir the COVID-19 Prevention Network, an infectious disease and vaccine expert, said during YKHC’s virtual town hall it appears adverse reactions are not yet well understood, adding “It looks like it’s not common and we’ll just continue to have to watch it.”

Corey said while he’s personally experienced anaphylaxis reactions in the past, he still planned to get the vaccine.

“I think the risk-benefit ratio for healthcare workers is such that all of us want to be protected so that we don’t have this anxiety about getting a severe illness ourselves because we’re doing our job,” he said.

Alaska loses 20 doses

Called “fussy” by health teams because if its need for cold storage, the Pfizer vaccine can go bad at the wrong temperature. When the state redistributes the vaccine, it sends it out in packages kept between two and eight degrees Celsius, or 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit for up to three days, according to Matt Bobo, an epidemiologist with Alaska’s immunization program.

A continuous monitoring thermometer travels inside the package so that the health team can monitor temperatures for the duration of travel.

A shipment bound for Ketchikan arrived out of range. “It was too hot and so that package failed,” Bobo said.

Bobo said 20 doses were lost in that shipment. The replacement shipment arrived with no problems, Bobo said.

Moderna arrives in Alaska

Over the weekend the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the emergency use of the Moderna vaccine, and Alaska’s public health team said the first doses arrived in Alaska Monday. Next week, the state will take public comments to help shape the next phase of vaccine allocation. The first phase prioritized front line health care workers and residents in long-term care facilities.

Alaska’s allocation of the Moderna vaccine is 26,800 doses.

The vaccine and young people

“We’ve had numerous young people in our region who’ve died from COVID-19 and others who have suffered long term consequences,” said Hodges.

The Pfizer vaccine is approved for ages 16 and up. The Moderna vaccine is approved for ages 18 and up.

When asked whether healthy, young people should get the vaccine, Corey and Hodges each said yes.

Corey said it’s not yet known if the vaccine prevents the virus from colonization, or from onward transmission. At this stage, the vaccine is a highly effective personal benefit to protect the recipient from becoming ill, he said. Corey reinforced this as a distinction between preventing disease and preventing transmission of infection.

“The job for Dr. Hodges and her crew is to vaccinate all of you to get good coverage. That’s what we would need here at this point in time. You can’t be assured of this concept of herd immunity. I’m not a fan of herd immunity because I see that this virus is incredibly infectious,” Corey said.

Hodges agreed.

“It’s really important for all of us to get vaccinated, to protect ourselves and also to protect those around us,” she said. “We also have to protect our children who have been disproportionately affected in our region.”

Tracking the vaccine

To date, 5,674 Pfizer vaccinations have been given in Alaska, according to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard. Learn more at covidvax.alaska.gov.

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