On January 4th the Zoom room was packed with some of Alaska’s fifth estate luminaries, Dr. Anne Zink, and a host of COVID-19 experts and apparatchiks. We drilled her and the rest of the team with pointed, no-holds-barred questions, and induced some answers you may find interesting or useful. Possibly eyebrow-raising. I have paraphrased questions, and edited responses for length and clarity. Content meaning remains unaltered.
Is there a verification process when someone signs up to make sure they are indeed in the correct phase and tier, i.e., the correct priority?
“This is [in large degree an] honor system. This has been the approach that we've taken from the beginning of this response, and really asking Alaskans to work together. Alaskans have really risen to that occasion and challenge. And we know that there may be people who go around or say different things, and we've had people at the airport not necessarily go through [COVID screening]. But that doesn't mean that most Alaskans aren't doing that overall.
“The more precise we are and the more like we're doing a lot of eligibility screening and making it very strict, the slower it's going to take to roll out vaccine. There are consequences to that. We want to roll out vaccine as quickly as possible within the tiers, but we're really asking Alaskans, because this really takes all of us to get there. The IT system, the vaccinators, the people who are making the vaccine, and it takes Alaskans. Read through [the details of each phase and tier]. If you can honestly say that you're in that group, then great. We're really excited to get vaccinated. We'll keep moving through the groups as quickly as possible.”
There have been reports of seniors getting links to apply for an appointment with vaccinations, and then they later find out that that just because they can make an appointment it doesn't mean they're eligible. What's happening here?
“Part of the reason we're saying, “If you are over 65, and you made that appointment, no need to cancel,” there was some confusion over the weekend because we had an auto-response set up that said “Cancel.” We would just really ask people for patience, and to really go through our covidvax.alaska.gov website that really clears it up... So, I encourage Alaskans to do that process. But again, we want to just respond, we want to move quickly. We want to be able to continue to vaccinate...
“I've gotten emails that said, “Fine, I'm going to go ahead and keep my appointment.” I've gotten emails that said, “I'm going to cancel and I'm going to give it a week or two and let others to be able to schedule.” So again, Alaskans been able to work together to be able to get through this process. I don't anticipate a significant delay in the vaccine process because of this, and I encourage people to stay on that website to see who's up next for the tier. But it's exciting to see the excitement for vaccine.
“I guess along those lines, I do want to just point out that if those 65 and older go to the website on Wednesday [January 6], and they're all full, we're going to keep putting appointments in as soon as we have vaccine and providers to do it. So I just want to encourage people to keep checking back to that website. It's not like this is your one time, and once you've missed it, it's gone. And same for let's say you're a healthcare worker, tier 3 of phase 1, and you haven't gotten a chance to be vaccinated. Keep checking and there will be more sites available. We're getting more vaccine and we're getting more providers. There's a lot of expansion happening. Keep wearing your mask, keep distancing. But keep checking the website.”
In terms of the Phase 1a group — health care workers — what level of participation, or uptake, are you experiencing?
“Yeah, so it's a great question. We don't have great visibility on it. We get numbers from licensing and others that say ‘We have about this many who work in hospital, with this many who work in this healthcare,’ so we've got some estimates on that. And then we get numbers back on how many vaccinated. We haven't done a formal survey back out yet to say, ‘How many did this look like in this category?’
“We're starting to get some data in from the long-term care facilities on both staff and residents. We have been asking like, ‘Hey, how's it going? What does your uptake look like?’ Particularly to those who treat and see COVID patients on a regular basis, like in the hospitals, we're seeing higher than expected uptake. So we're seeing upwards of 80% of the staff wanting to get vaccinated at the time, and a lot of demand in that region.
“I think that the less people see COVID, the less that they kind of see the negative side effects, and there's a little bit more. We're seeing a little bit slower uptake in that Phase 3 outpatient provider world. There were definitely some that were super-fast to jump on, but I think it's taking a bit longer. They don't always interact with COVID-positive patients in the same sort of way, so we would expect that to be a bit slower.”
Is there somewhere in the planning process total target numbers at specific times regarding how many vaccinations we want to have accomplished?
“I think that the target is a little bit of a moving target in some ways. We're still trying to understand the degree of herd immunity that's needed for vaccination -- somewhere between 60% to 80%. Part of that has to also do with how easily the virus can transmit from one person to another. So unfortunately, the data that we're seeing out of South Africa, particularly in the United Kingdom, and now starting to show up in multiple states around the country -- it does look like this small variant that has changed, likely does make it easier to move person to person. And as a result, we need more people to be vaccinated to really prevent it from spreading as quickly from person to person.
“I think that that will be a moving target. it's really hard to say at this [time what the goal is]. As you move forward, the more people that are high risk that we can vaccinate, the more this disease will present in more mild ways because we do know that people who are younger tend to have more mild symptoms than people who are older. And the more that we can protect people who have a hard time protecting themselves because they live in a congregate setting or a long-term care facility and they are older, than that's going to make a big difference in this being much more of a mild disease as well. I wish I had a perfect target for you, but I would say the target is moving given the vaccine and will continue to move forward. And at this point, with limited vaccine, we're just trying to get it out as quickly as possible.”
Thank you Dr. Zink. One last important point. Everything having to do with COVID-19, and particularly vaccinations, is changing daily. For the latest updates and for more information visit covid19.alaska.gov and covidvax.alaska.gov.