Numerous industry sectors and groups, including teachers, are urging state officials to move up their eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine even as it became clear Alaska’s allocation for the month is all but used up.
During a hearing Monday, several educators and the president of the Anchorage teachers union urged the state’s vaccine allocation committee to move teachers into “immediate” vaccine status before in-person learning begins for K-2 and special education classes through sixth grade at the Anchorage School District in about a week.
Representatives of the state’s trucking and shipping industries asked to be bumped up as well. Warehousemen and truck drivers in the Lower 48 are seeing 20% to 25% workforce reductions due to the effects of the virus, Matson vice president Bal Dreyfus told the committee during the hearing, held remotely via Zoom.
“That would be a major impact to the supply chain in Alaska,” Dreyfus said.
But one provider begged the state to not add any more groups at all until more vaccine is available.
Mat-Su Health Services, a community health organization, has been forced to hire temporary employees and work 60-hour weeks to keep up with callers, some of them seniors in tears because they don’t have internet or computer skills, program coordinator Victoria Knapp testified, calling the rollout a disaster.
“For the state to open up another group anytime soon, we will withdraw from the program,” Knapp said.
The state’s vaccination program began in mid-December with front-line hospital workers and long-term care centers. It expanded to include other health workers.
The rollout hit a series of public snags after the state opened eligibility to Alaskans 65 and over several weeks ahead of schedule following slower-than-expected interest from some health care workers.
Officials say they knew they didn’t have enough doses to vaccinate the estimated 90,000 Alaskans in the senior age group but wanted to make sure nothing was wasted.
It could take a month and a half just to get vaccinations to the 65 and older group.
The next approved group includes prison inmates, correctional officers and residents of homeless shelters, as well as “frontline essential workers” 50 and older including teachers, emergency responders and seafood industry workers.
The state’s vaccine allocation advisory committee held Monday’s hearing to take comments on the next tier after that. The state is proposing that category include people between 16 and 49 with high-risk medical conditions as well as any additional essential workers.
A prior committee meeting in late December attracted more than 500 comments. Since, the state has received more than 500 additional comments.
More than 20 people signed up to provide live comments Monday afternoon, including people representing staff and volunteers at senior centers and people with developmental disabilities who don’t live in homes, where vaccine is already available.
There were also requests to prioritize electric utilities, people with Type 1 diabetes and library workers, and correct the next tier to include University of Alaska instructors, staff and student teachers as well as students in congregate housing and University of Alaska Fairbanks plant workers.
Alaska health officials say the state ranks fourth in the country for per capita vaccinations but still has “incredibly limited” amounts of vaccine.
Alaska got a total of 114,800 doses of the vaccine from the federal government for December and January: 62,400 doses manufactured by Pfizer, which require ultra cold storage, and 52,4000 manufactured by Moderna Inc. That doesn’t include federal military and veteran allotments.
Nearly all of those doses are already spoken for — before the month is even half over, health officials said during a briefing Monday.
“We have more or less allocated all of our January vaccine,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, state co-lead on Alaska’s vaccine task force.
Basically, officials say, right now there just isn’t enough vaccine to go around, even though they’re signing up more and more providers who want to give the shots.
That doesn’t mean vaccines are no longer being administered, officials say. Some are set aside for long-term care centers, and some are meant for communities that haven’t been able to get them yet due to bad weather.
Some are also bound for large-scale vaccine clinics that just haven’t happened yet. An ongoing clinic at Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage ends Tuesday, when another one is scheduled to start in Mat-Su at the Alaska State Fairgrounds. Other clinics are planned for Juneau, Fairbanks and Homer.
A state dashboard showed just over 29,000 people had received the first of two doses necessary to get vaccinated against the virus that’s killed more than 220 Alaskans, most of them over 60. Officials caution that dashboard data lags behind real time and more shots have actually been given.
The vaccine allocation advisory committee meets Tuesday and will review the comments submitted ahead of and during Monday’s hearing before making recommendations.
State officials urged patience with a process they acknowledged could have been much improved.
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s medical officer, said officials don’t yet know how much vaccine they might get for February.
Federal officials have said they could send additional supplies at any time. President-elect Joe Biden said last week he plans to release most available coronavirus vaccine doses.
But given the delicate storage requirements and other complications of vaccine distribution, Zink said she doesn’t expect the situation to suddenly change on Jan. 20 when Biden is sworn in.
“We just don’t have much vaccine in the state,” she said, addressing the teacher requests. “I wish we had more and we would love to get it out as quickly as possible.”
For more information about vaccinations, the public can go to covidvax.alaska.gov or call 907-646-3322 and leave a message. Officials say calls should be returned within a day, though some users are reporting far longer waits than that.