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‘Better than I could’ve hoped for’: Vaccination rates, access to vaccine remain on rise across Alaska

Rural communities among areas with highest percentages of vaccinated residents
More opportunities for Alaskans to get vaccinated are popping up across the state.
More opportunities for Alaskans to get vaccinated are popping up across the state.
Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 8:37 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - If you need assistance with booking an appointment to receive your COVID-19 vaccine, please visit covidvax.alaska.gov, or call (907) 646-3322. You may also email covid19vaccine@alaska.gov.

Vaccination efforts – particularly in rural areas of the state – are going well, according to the state’s chief medical officer, who said Monday that some of the most far-flung parts of Alaska are actually seeing some of the highest rates of COVID-19 vaccination.

“We have five boroughs that are over 70% vaccinated, which is fantastic to see,” said State of Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. “Pretty impressive to see communities – be it tribal leaders, public health teams, community workers – giving vaccine out across the state in some of our hardest-to-reach areas.”

To date, at least 49.2% of all eligible Alaskans age 16 and older have received at least one dose of an available COVID-19 vaccine, with at least 42.4% or 247,022 people considered fully vaccinated, according to data from the Department of Health and Social Services. This includes vaccine administered by the state, Indian Health Service, Federal Pharmacy and Federally Qualified Health Centers.

That same data set also shows that the Municipality of Skagway is leading first-dose vaccination rates, with a rate of 78.17%. Petersburg, the Nome Census Area, Yakutat and Hoonah-Angoon, as well as the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area are toward the top of the list, with some of the highest rates in the state, all nearing or well above 70%.

Zink said several main factors have contributed to getting the coronavirus vaccine out to so many people in so many communities so quickly. These include existing structure, such as pathways already developed between the state and tribes to get other vaccines for children to those villages; a pre-built redistribution process, which allowed for getting vaccine at the right temperatures and in the right amounts to specific locations within a particular time frame; and a group of remote and itinerant public health nurses across the state, whose familiarity with certain villages and other congregate settings meant health officials weren’t going into communities without some knowledge of each first.

“I think many of our Alaskans who live in hard-to-reach areas know that they are a long way from medical care,” Zink added, “so we’ve actually seen pretty good uptake in those areas for vaccine, and are excited to make sure that it’s accessible and an option, and that those who choose to do so can get vaccinated as easily as possible.”

Claire Geldhof, an itinerant nurse with DHSS’ Southeast Section of Public Health Nursing, said the endeavor to get more Alaskans vaccinated – and their responses – has been “amazing.”

“Now that we’re into the spring season, it’s nice to kind of be through air travel and small aircraft that’s a little bit less bouncy with winter winds,” she said, “but in terms of connecting with local communities and providers in different teams that itinerate to areas that otherwise don’t have day-to-day health care services, it’s been quite an honor to serve and participate in conversations of prevention, and then ongoing healthcare needs, too.”

Receiving allocations monthly instead of weekly also played a huge role in getting entire communities vaccinated in large quantities at once, Zink said, and allowed for partnering with tribes so state and tribal vaccine allocations could be delivered at the same time.

“It would go out once to an area and be able to do that whole community,” Zink said, “rather than piece, by piece, by piece, and be able to put that together. It made a big difference.”

Zink added that there’s some relief in seeing so many Alaskans with access to vaccine.

“I think back where we were a year ago. I was hopeful that in a couple years, we might have a decent vaccine,” Zink said.

Now, a year later, we have “extraordinary vaccines that are readily available,” she continued. “It is better than I could’ve hoped for.”

For Geldhof, the response from people in far-flung communities who suddenly have access to vaccine is often overwhelming.

“The tone and feeling; people are so excited, happy, and grateful,” she said. “So it’s quite an honor to meet with people and bring this in.

“The landscape has radically shifted in a year,” she continued, “and I think – as we’re entering spring, we have plants popping up, and bears coming out – there’s a real feeling of relief but also loss, and mending, and repairing, and working hard with communities and systems to assess what we need to do to help this healing process.”

One challenge that remains prevalent is access to information about the vaccine itself, and where Alaskans can get that information as well as get vaccinated in their areas of the state. Among the communities with more and more access, for example, is the Mat-Su Borough. Airport vaccination sites are also being stood up and opened in four different communities: Juneau, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, and Anchorage.

Still, among the communities with some of the lowest vaccination rates in Alaska are the Fairbanks North Star Borough, with 40.12% having received one or more doses; the North Slope Borough, with 34.19% having received one or more doses; the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, with 33.57% having received one or more doses; and, at the bottom, the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area, with 28.37% having received one or more doses.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I think it’s really easy to overestimate the risk of something new – like a vaccine – and underestimate the risks of something we do every day, like getting in a float plane or driving a car,” Zink said. “There’s risk to those things as well. We’re always having to balance the risk benefit, but these vaccines are impressively safe and efficacious.

“So I’m just really hopeful people continue to make the decision to get vaccinated,” she continued, “and I just can’t wait for a sunny, productive, businesses open, travel, grandparent hugs, long friend sort of summer this summer.”

Anyone living or working in Alaska age 16 or older can be vaccinated at no cost. Beginning June 1, tourists can also be vaccinated at any one of the four airports previously mentioned.

People can view the state’s vaccine data dashboard in full by clicking here. There’s also a team ready to help anyone who needs assistance booking an appointment. For this, call (907) 646-3322, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends. People can also call (833) 4-VAXLINE, email covid19vaccine@alaska.gov, or visit covidvax.alaska.gov. Free language interpretation services are available.

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