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Anchorage mayor calls COVID-19 vaccine ‘experimental.’ His chief medical officer says it’s the ‘most important’ tool.

Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 8:54 PM AKDT|Updated: Jul. 29, 2021 at 11:15 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Presenting seemingly contradictory public messaging Thursday, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson called COVID-19 vaccines “experimental” after his newly hired chief medical officer encouraged Alaskans to get the shot.

“I urge you, if you want to protect yourself, your family and friends, the vaccination is the most important tool we have right now,” said Dr. Michael Savitt, who Bronson has chosen to serve as the Anchorage Health Department’s chief medical officer.

The department’s epidemiologist, Janet Johnston, resigned this week.

Bronson and his administration announced Savitt’s position during a roundtable discussion with news reporters on Thursday. During the dialogue, Bronson, who has previously contracted COVID-19, said he is not vaccinated and at this time has “no intention” of getting vaccinated for the virus.

“What I do is my business and what the individual does is their business,” Bronson said. “I’m not here to compel people to wear a mask or get vaccinated. My thing here is, my focus as a government leader is to provide the absolute best information that’s available. That’s why we hired Dr. Savitt ... I’m fulfilling my duty to the public by providing the best information available and I do that by hiring the right people.”

When asked why he doesn’t want to get vaccinated, Bronson said it’s a personal choice.

“I’m going down a path I think my media guy doesn’t want me to go down, but I’m pretty blunt. It’s an experimental vaccine,” Bronson claimed.

Savitt, however, said it’s important that more people get vaccinated. In an effort to counter common misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines, Savitt said the vaccines will not impact fertility and also urged breastfeeding mothers to get vaccinated in order to transfer antibodies to nursing infants who are too young to get the shot.

“We have to really try to get more people vaccinated,” Savitt said, later adding, “Continue to use a mask if you’re unvaccinated. If you are vaccinated and you’re in a situation where you should be wearing it, protect yourself. Wear a mask.”

Savitt, in his position, will report to David Morgan, Bronson’s appointee to serve as director of the city’s health department. Morgan, who is still subject to confirmation by the Anchorage Assembly, hesitated to say that the pandemic is ongoing during an interview Wednesday, instead saying, “It’s a personal view kind of thing ... Pandemic is an adjective that describes a situation.”

On Thursday, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink delivered opening remarks during a videoconference with news reporters and provided the definition of a pandemic, noting that the World Health Organization currently classifies COVID-19 as a pandemic.

“A pandemic is a disease that spreads quickly across large geographical areas like a continent or the world,” Zink said, offering clarification.

Zink, and other public health officials, have for months said the three COVID-19 vaccines available to Alaskans are proven to be safe and effective. This month, Zink has noted that 98% of Alaska’s COVID-19-related deaths have been in unvaccinated people.

Questions this week about how Bronson’s administration will respond to the ongoing pandemic followed an urgent warning from hospital administrators from across the state on Tuesday outlining a shortage of available critical care beds, inadequate staffing and a burned out workforce. They begged for Alaskans to get vaccinated, saying if community transmission is not reduced, the state’s already strained health care infrastructure will be overwhelmed.

Anchorage homeless coordinator Dr. John Morris seemed to challenge concerns about hospital capacity Thursday, noting some hospitals have taken internal measures such as delaying non-emergent surgeries for short periods of time.

“We have a tremendous extra capacity to deal with any surge in COVID. This is a very different thing than it was a year ago,” Morris said. “The community’s hospitals are ready for this, and we’re doing very well.”

His statement is at odds with information from The Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Home Association, which describes hospitals as being in a worse situation now than during the peak of a surge in cases last winter, due to staffing challenges.

“The healthcare system is in a far more fragile state than it was before,” Association CEO Jared Kosin said Tuesday. “We have less room, we have less staff, and we have a burned out workforce.”

When asked if his administration is planning to take additional actions or implement additional measures to slow the spread of the virus in Anchorage, Bronson responded, “Other than providing the best information available, let me ask you, what should I be doing?”

Bronson was then asked whether he’s considering capacity restrictions or encouraging community members to wear masks.

“The policy of this administration is to follow the guidance of Dr. Savitt,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Bronson and municipal manager Amy Demboski said the municipality will continue to provide information about COVID-19, the available vaccines and free testing and vaccinations to anyone who wants them.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct when Janet Johnston, former municipal epidemiologist, resigned. It was earlier this week.

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