As getting a COVID-19 shot becomes more convenient in Alaska, more doses are going to waste

Alaska vaccine waste remains low nationally, and health officials say it is to be expected
A pop-up clinic at the Spenard Food Truck Carnival offered free COVID-19 shots.
A pop-up clinic at the Spenard Food Truck Carnival offered free COVID-19 shots.(ktuu)
Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 5:11 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When COVID-19 vaccines first became available in Alaska, appointments were hard to come by, sometimes filling up just hours after they were posted online. Now, as supply has increased and uptake has slowed, public health officials are working to make it more convenient to get vaccinated.

In Anchorage, there are daily walk-in or drive-up vaccination opportunities that don’t require appointments and even pop-up vaccination clinics at popular locations and events, like the Spenard Food Truck Carnival.

The goal is to reach the sector of community members who will get vaccinated if it’s easy and fits into their day-to-day life, but the added convenience comes at the cost of an increase in vaccine wastage, something public health officials say is to be expected.

“As we get further along, we’re going to expect increased wastage,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, during a media briefing this month.

The state requires providers track wasted doses, and recently provided some of that data to Alaska’s News Source in response to a public records request.

According to data provided by the state from mid-December — when the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccines were available in Alaska — through April 20, there were 2,956 doses reported wasted during that time, with more than half of them reported into the database in the first 20 days of April.

From mid-December through January, 172 doses were reported wasted. In February, only 75 doses were reported wasted. In March, the reports jumped to 724 and in the first 20 days of April, 1,985 doses were reported wasted. However, according to the state, the dates included with the data mark the date that the wastage was reported, rather than the actual date each dose was wasted.

According to the DHSS COVID-19 Vaccine dashboard, more than 580,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered to those 16 and older in Alaska, meaning that less than 1% of Alaska’s vaccines are going to waste.

The vaccines don’t have preservatives or additives, require storage at extremely cold temperatures and, once opened, the multi-dose vials must be used within hours or thrown away.

“When I was in Hyder, there were two more people who needed to be vaccinated and so that meant I needed to open another Pfizer which meant there’ll be four additional doses,” Zink said, giving an example of how some vaccine doses end up wasted. “Do you leave two people there who can’t be vaccinated to save those four doses, or do you potentially waste four doses and move on?”

Fortunately, in that case, Zink said the state was able to find a home for the extra four doses within six hours, but that’s not always the case.

“It’s a really short window, so we do expect wastage, just given the numbers as we’re moving forward,” she said.

Health officials have spoken publicly about the increase in vaccine waste, noting a significant uptick in April.

“In April, we did see more wastage,” said Matt Bobo with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. “We had really kind of talked about not missing an opportunity and not stressing or worrying about wastage so much.”

He said since then, guidance from the federal government for May has been to worry less about waste and more about missing an opportunity to vaccinate.

“Nationally, our wastage numbers are really low,” Bobo added.

The reasons for vaccines going to waste vary. Some doses are lost and unaccounted for, drawn up and not used, broken, dropped or spilled, while some are ruined by a freezer or refrigerator being too warm and others expire after being opened.

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