With COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, the darkest day of the year could be brighter

PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center. (File photo by Leila Kheiry)

The darkest day of the year could be a little brighter in 2020.

The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are set to arrive in Ketchikan in about a week and a half. Local health care providers and officials are preparing to distribute the first doses.

PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center spokesperson Kate Govaars confirmed Thursday that the hospital expects the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines around Dec. 21 — the winter solstice.

The prospect of the days getting longer is a theme touched on last month by Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink.

“I kind of think of it like the sun. Alaskans are used to a dark winter. And we’re also used to the fact that Dec. 22 doesn’t feel much lighter than the 21st. And I think the vaccine’s going to feel the same way,” she said in a Nov. 23 briefing.

Many questions about the rollout in Ketchikan remain unanswered — such as the number of doses local hospitals and clinics will receive in that first shipment.

To date, officials and health providers in Ketchikan would not provide an estimate. It’s reportedly still in flux.

Alaska state officials said they’re expecting about 35,100 doses of a vaccine from drugmaker Pfizer and BioNTech. It would receive about half that many — 17,900 — of a separate vaccine from drug company Moderna. Juneau officials said Thursday that they’re expecting just shy of 1,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the capital city’s first shipment.

It’s not clear which vaccine will be the first to make it to Ketchikan. But things are moving quickly in Washington D.C.

An advisory panel at the federal Food and Drug Administration voted in favor of approving the Pfizer vaccine on Thursday. While the panel’s vote is not binding, the Associated Press reports that the FDA is “widely expected” to follow its expert advice.

The nation’s drug regulator is set to consider approving the Moderna vaccine a week later, on Dec. 17.

Here’s the thing, though: The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at minus 95 degrees Fahrenheit — that’s 15 degrees colder than the coldest temperature ever recorded in Alaska.

Govaars, the PeaceHealth spokesperson, said Ketchikan Medical Center doesn’t have a freezer capable of reaching those ultra-cold temperatures. But because the drugmaker said the vaccine stays good for five days at refrigerator temperatures, Govaars said she anticipates receiving “limited quantities” at a time.

Creekside Family Health Clinic manager Trevor Shaw said his clinic does have one of those specialized freezers. He said there are still a lot of moving parts.

“I think everyone’s all kind of in the same boat of, we don’t know what it’s going to look like until right about the time of approval,” he told KRBD Thursday.

But local officials are preparing to hit the ground running. In October, Ketchikan pandemic response officials held a drive-thru flu vaccine clinic. One goal of that was to serve as a  “practice run for what a [COVID-19] vaccine would look like,” wrote emergency operations center spokesperson Kacie Paxton.

Doses will be given based on medical priority. The first group will include:

  • Hospital-based front line health care workers at the highest risk for COVID-19 infection
  • Staff and residents at long-term care facilities
  • Emergency medical and fire personnel
  • People who give vaccine shots

State officials said about 25,000 Alaskans qualify — roughly 3.5% of the state’s population. Local officials said they’re working to determine how many people in Ketchikan would satisfy those criteria.

The vaccine would be expanded to other categories as more doses arrive. Here’s Dr. Anne Zink speaking last month on what Alaskans should expect as the doses are distributed.

“At first, we’re not going to notice it, and by February we’re going to be like, ‘Wait, something’s changing.’ And by spring equinox it’s going to be noticeable. And by the summer solstice, we’re going to be like, ‘The sun is out in a very different way than before,’” she said.

Zink said Monday, “The end is in sight.”

Robyne of KUAC contributed to this report from Fairbanks.

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