Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Tuesday evening that all Alaskans 16 and older can get COVID-19 vaccines. That means Alaskans with ongoing health conditions can get their shots now, even those as young as age 16. At least two out of three Alaska adults have these ongoing conditions, including smoking, heart and lung disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, current cancer and more.

Along with this widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines comes open appointments in many communities and more vaccine on the way in April, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. Alaskans can schedule an appointment by visiting the website for vaccine scheduling or calling (907) 646-3322, which has open hours on weekends.

“We’re in a race against a virus that keeps on changing,” Zink said. “Right now, we have the advantage in the race. We have one of the highest rates of full vaccination in the country, with nearly 17% of Alaska’s total population fully vaccinated and almost 1 out of 4 Alaskans on their way to full vaccination as of March 10.”

“That’s great news for each individual Alaskan who has had a shot. We have three safe vaccines that have been shown to prevent serious illness and death. That’s important for all of us, but incredibly important for the many Alaskans facing higher chances for serious COVID-19 illness given that they live with other ongoing health conditions.”

With vaccination comes more ways to get together again with others, as well as peace of mind for individuals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released new guidelines for those who are fully vaccinated. During the pandemic, the need to quarantine after exposure to someone with COVID- 19 has been hard for families, workers, businesses, students and sports teams. Now, the new CDC guidelines say fully-vaccinated people no longer need to quarantine after exposure to someone with COVID-19. They also can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask. The guidance also says fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household without masks, but not if anyone has increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Alaskans have the choice to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Zink said the cost of medical care can be a motivating factor for many when they are deciding whether to vaccinate. The vaccines are free, she noted, while medical bills from a serious case of COVID-19 or from potential long-term consequences of the disease can be extremely costly.

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Quickly vaccinating more individuals helps reach widespread protection for all

Providing at least one vaccine to 1 out of 4 Alaskans is a great start, but it leaves a large gap of Alaskans yet to receive their shots and reach what experts say is needed for herd immunity, which is protection for communities as a whole. While there’s no established goal for that set by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), some national infectious disease experts have said the United States should aim for a minimum vaccination rate of around 70% or higher. The higher the percentage of Alaskans vaccinated, the greater protection against the spread of COVID-19 for all the residents of the state.

Dr. Gene Quinn, an Anchorage doctor who treats heart disease, stressed that the vaccine protects more than just your health.

“It protects everyone else, too.”

Quinn is the medical director of Quality and Population Health at the Alaska Heart and Vascular Institute. He said the COVID-19 virus has been really hard on his patients who suffer from heart conditions. Alaskans with underlying health problems like heart disease, lung disease, obesity and diabetes don’t have a lot of reserve when it comes to fighting another attack on their health – like an infection with COVID-19.

6 health concerns increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19: smoking, obesity, diabetes, COPD, heart disease and kidney disease

“There’s a lot of strain that’s put on the heart when you have any illness or infection,” he said. “The heart and the lungs are literally linked. When one of them isn’t working well, that isn’t good. When both of them aren’t working well, that’s even worse.”

During the past year of the pandemic, Quinn said he’s cared for Alaskans who already had health conditions that increased their chances for COVID-19 complications. He’s also seeing new patients who now deal with heart conditions related to their recent COVID infections. He said he has patients in their 30s and 40s who are many months out from COVID illness, but still have lasting heart-related problems.

Quinn was among Alaska’s first health care providers to receive a COVID-19 vaccine earlier this winter. He said he is encouraging all his patients with heart conditions to get the shot as soon as possible. He recommends the vaccine for people who love and care for those with ongoing health conditions, too. That includes most Alaskans.  

“My message to them is really simple: When you are offered a vaccine, get a vaccine,” Quinn said. “The one that you should choose is the one you can get the soonest.”

Alaskans have many ways to schedule vaccine appointments

Alaskans can choose different ways to schedule appointments for available COVID-19 vaccines. Available appointments across the state can be found on Alaska’s website for vaccine scheduling. If booking an appointment over the phone is preferred, call (907) 646-3322 from 9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. on weekends. Alaskans also can email covid19vaccine@alaska.gov. Alaska health care providers and pharmacies also are setting up special vaccine clinics across the state. Alaska providers will have three federally-approved options: the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, and the newer one-shot Janssen version from Johnson & Johnson. The Pfizer vaccine is the only shot currently approved for Alaskans as young as age 16.

For the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 vaccination, visit Alaska’s website at http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/epi/id/pages/COVID-19/vaccine.aspx.

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