As the COVID-19 case count in Alaska begins to rise again, health officials say vaccinating the state is the best way to control the spread, but the rate of vaccination is slowing.
“This is the crux of where we are now with this pandemic,” state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said this week. “We need to vaccinate people.”
Health experts have billed high vaccination rates as a ticket out of the pandemic, and last month, Alaska became the first state to offer vaccines to all residents 16 and older.
Alaskans most eager to get vaccinated have already had their shots. Now, the new challenge state officials say they are facing is how to reach a sometimes more hesitant group of people who could receive a vaccine if the process were simpler.
That caused a change in their strategy.
“I think there is still a large group of Alaskans who would be fine to get vaccinated, but it just has to be more convenient,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, co-chair of the Alaska Vaccine Task Force.
During the early stages of the state’s effort to vaccinate Alaskans, uptake was rapid and the proportion of fully vaccinated people was on an upward trajectory. That trend has flattened recently, McLaughlin told reporters Thursday.
Once case rates drop below 10 per 100,000 people (they are sitting at roughly double these days) and Alaska reaches about 70% to 80% of people vaccinated, McLaughlin said the state will be “in very good shape.”
As of Thursday, about 29% of Alaskans age 16 and older were considered fully vaccinated, while 41% had received their first vaccination.
McLaughlin’s current focus is to help dispel misinformation about new vaccines and give Alaskans the information they need to make the decision to get vaccinated, McLaughlin said.
“Vaccine hesitancy is one of the main impediments to our ability to get back to normal quickly,” he said.
In Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, COVID-19 cases rose steadily by about 75% between the beginning and the end of March, “which obviously worries me a lot,” said Dr. Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist with the Department of Anchorage Health, in an interview Wednesday.
Previously, after the city’s big rebound last year, cases had started to drop before stabilizing. But now, cases are increasing once again, in parallel with the case rates just before the increase.
Johnston said he is hopeful that cases will not increase as before due to increased vaccines. But she said she is concerned that not so many appointments are kept every day.
The lowest rates of vaccine absorption are found among Alaskans between the ages of 20 and 39, according to Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer. That age group also has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases, which worries him that that age group could continue to spread the disease, he said.
Given the high vaccination rate among older Alaskans, there is less concern that hospitals could be overwhelmed during a spike in cases.
But, Zink said, people in their 30s and 40s are a group of people who are hospitalized for long periods. And while they generally do well and are discharged, they may also have to deal with the long-term symptoms of the disease, as well as medical expenses.
State officials said that in order to spot a group less likely to go online and schedule an appointment for vaccination, they are shifting their strategy from larger appointment-based clinics to walk-in vaccine opportunities in more convenient locations, such as grocery stores. or doctor’s offices. .
“That’s the group we’re really trying to hit next,” Walker Linderman said. (Alaskans looking for a vaccine clinic near them can visit covidvax.alaska.gov.)
So far, vaccination coverage rates have varied widely across the state. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the seven most vaccinated counties in the US were all in rural Alaska, with Skagway, Yakutat and Petersburg approaching 50% vaccinated as of this week.
But in other parts of the state, such as the Matanuska-Susitna district, the vaccination rate has remained low while the daily case count has increased.
The state task force is working closely with public health centers in different regions to assess specific concerns and get to the bottom of low vaccination rates, Walker Linderman said Wednesday.
“We are working especially with Mat-Su; we have some surveys that are really trying to understand what the problems are, ”he said.
Health officials describe the vaccination effort as a race against rising cases and increasingly contagious variants of the virus.
For now, Alaska is still winning the race, Zink said.
“But the race is not over,” he said. “We’re just going up a hill.”