It is quite possibly the most important document produced this year by the State of Alaska. In the middle of last October, Alaska submitted the draft “COVID-19 Vaccination Plan” to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for review. This document is supposed to address how the war against COVID-19 is to be fought and won in the State of Alaska. I got hold of a copy and read it over. Frankly, I thought it fell well short of the mark.
The Alaska plan was prepared by the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, a partnership between DHSS and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). Despite its institutional pedigree, it seemed sketchy and lacking in detail. This seemed to me especially egregious since it was thought at the time that one or more COVID-19 vaccines might be available in Alaska for distribution in a matter of weeks.
I figured I must have missed something, or there’s a backstory so I sought an interview with the head of the Alaska COVID-19 Task Force, and eventually landed a 15-minute interview with Dr. Tessa Walker Linderman, DHSS lead for the Alaska COVID-19 Vaccination Task Force. Dr. Linderman is a Nurse Consultant for the Division of Public Health. She has a doctorate in public health nursing, and worked at the CDC before coming to the state. I found her to be professional but cordial, candid, and well-informed. Here is a selection of questions and answers we pursued during the interview. The discussion proved far more illuminating than the draft Plan. The discussion presented here has been minimally edited for length and clarity.
Will there be future versions of your vaccine distribution plan? And is there a timeline for when other versions will come out
“We are constantly updating our planning process. That document in and of itself was a requirement that we submit to CDC. It's more of our framework, our 30,000-foot overview picture of the work that we're doing. CDC is not requiring us to send in additional versions, but we are constantly planning and updating, and we provide those updates at our ECHOs [public Zoom meetings].
“I'm sure we will update that plan, but I guess I just don't want anyone to think that the plan is like [the draft], and now we're just sitting back and waiting for vaccine. There could be nothing further from the truth. We got that plan in, and then the next day, and every day, we just were working, working, working on updating and developing our plans, working with our partners -- I mean, doing targeted outreach to hospitals and long-term care facilities.
“We have regional planners that are connecting with every community on a borough or census-area level. I mean, we just have this massive team doing outreach daily to make sure that they are ready for the vaccine.”
I asked Dr. Linderman why the section regarding the assignment of priorities in the Alaska draft vaccine distribution plan was so vague. This is an important question because initially, perhaps for the first few months, the supplies of vaccine will be quite limited.
What groups of people will be in the higher priorities and get the vaccine first?
“We are waiting for the federal guidelines to come out from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices [ACIP]. ACIP are the ones who put out those official recommendations. They said we can't give the vaccine until those ACIP recommendations come out. So, we are definitely going to be adhering to those.
“We do have a state Allocation Committee that's made up of medical providers, medical ethicists, and public epidemiologists. They have met one time and basically concluded that they wanted to wait until the ACIP guidelines came out, and that there just wasn't really a need for Alaska to come up with their own when there is going to be federal guidance that we could work with.
“That being said, we have had groups reach out to us saying that they wanted to provide feedback on their population and why they should be considered on a higher phase than someone else. We have through our ECHOs [public Zoom meetings] let people know who to contact. We have a liaison team that is collecting that information. And when our Allocation Committee does meet, we will compile all of that and provide that to them as well. So, we've been publicly letting people know on our ECHOs that they can provide feedback to the allocation committee via our liaisons team.”
How will people be notified about which phase they are in? And how will they know when to go for their vaccination?
“So, as I said, we have a communications team that will really be working on getting that message out. We are working on media contracts, so making sure that we are utilizing various forms of outreach. And we're also working with different partners such as the Alaska Primary Care Association, our hospital association, AARP, and our disability association. There are lots of groups that we're communicating with through our liaison team. We have a weekly email update that goes out to all of them as well. We are building those partnerships right now, so when we need to call on different groups to help us get the word out to their members, they can help spread that word. But certainly, we're planning a large media campaign as well.”
Let's say someone believes they should be in a higher priority to receive a vaccination than they have been assigned. How will you be dealing with people who are basically contesting the decision of the Allocation Committee?
“Well, again, it will likely be more at the federal level, through ACIP. And, you know, I think we'll get to a point where maybe if we say, ‘Everyone 65 years of age and older is now eligible to go,’ and you're saying, ‘What if somebody's 60 years old and is at their doctor's office, demanding a vaccine? Is that kind of what you're saying?”
Yeah, that kind of thing.
“Oh. We haven't necessarily gotten down to that level yet, but I think that's good, it's definitely a good thing for us to be thinking about. Right now, our concern is that there won't be enough people that want to get the vaccine. So, a lot of our communication is about how to assure the effectiveness and the safety of the vaccine.”
“The idea that there's going to be lots of people that want to get the vaccine is very, is very encouraging, but I guess we have to think about it from both ends -- if there's not enough people that want it, and then if there's more people that want it than we have vaccine for. So definitely, all sides of it that we need to consider.”
The bottom line is there is way more happening in the Task Force than was expressed in the proforma draft Plan sent to the CDC. Stay current with the Task Force by attending ECHOs -- Zoom/phone-in Q and A sessions presented by various Alaska COVID-19 experts. They are open to the public. Contact the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Human Development for more information about how to attend.