‘I feel kind of like a hero’: Many hands are getting the COVID-19 vaccine to Southeast Alaska

Kathy Jo Blackburn (left), pilot Steve Kamm (middle), and Aaron Angerman (right) after the vaccine drop-off. (Photo by Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Alaska’s first shipment of the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine landed in Anchorage on Sunday night, and Juneau’s share came in on Tuesday morning. But getting the vaccine to smaller Southeast communities is a challenge.

The vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, and many places have no way to do that.

Sitka

Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium is handling vaccine distribution for much of Southeast. Spokesperson Maegan Bosak said they’ll store it in freezers at their Sitka headquarters and then parcel it out by plane to outlying communities. Once there, Bosak said communities will have a day or two to administer the vaccines.

The vaccine arrived at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport late Tuesday night. Frontline medical personnel, first responders and long-term care residents will be vaccinated first.

Dr. Elliot Bruhl, chief medical officer for SEARHC, got his first dose on Wednesday.

SEARHC chief medical officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo courtesy of Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium)

“Getting vaccinated is an important first step toward ending the pandemic, and you have an important role to play by rolling up your sleeve,” Bruhl said.

Wrangell

In Wrangell, the vaccine came over from Sitka on a chartered floatplane Wednesday.

Kathy Jo Blackburn of SEARHC received the package from pilot Steve Kamm. She said she didn’t know how many doses were in the first delivery.

Aaron Angerman, also of SEARHC, said a commercial flight would have delayed delivery until evening. Instead, the first vaccinations could start that afternoon.

Dr. Lynn Prysunka, director of the Wrangell Medical Center, was slated to be among the first to be vaccinated.

Ketchikan

Ketchikan got its first doses on Wednesday, too.

Public health nurse Theresa Ruzek had a bounce in her step as she received the package from Alaska Air Cargo manager Madison Swafford.

“I’m ready to hand it over. I feel kind of like a hero,” said Swafford.

“You are! You got it here in time,” replied Ruzek.

“We all are,” said Swafford.

Ketchikan’s first shipment had 20 doses, according to a local emergency operations center spokesperson. They’ll go to public health nurses and EMS personnel at two local fire departments. Officials expected the first doses to be given out today.

“I’m just very excited about today and the opportunity to start administering a COVID vaccine because I feel like this is going to be the first step in bringing us back to a little bit more normal existence,” Ruzek said.

A woman at Alaska Air Cargo said she was skeptical about the vaccine. She said that’s because most vaccines can take years to be approved, while the COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized on an emergency basis in less than a year.

I don’t know, just the rush of it all,” she said. She declined to give her name, citing her job.

Public health nurse manager Theresa Ruzek, front left, holds a box containing the first few doses of COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in Ketchikan. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Ruzek said the vaccine was safe, but people should still do their research.

“Find credible sources. Educate yourself. Ask questions,” she said. “I highly, highly encourage you taking the vaccine. I think it has been shown to be safe and highly effective. But do your research. Ask the questions.”

Skagway and Haines

In Skagway and Haines, people will have to wait a bit longer.

SEARHC is also responsible for getting the vaccine to Haines. Bosak said that could happen by the end of the week.

“That is of course weather dependent, but we are excited to get the first initial distribution out to all communities,” she said.

The Haines emergency operations center conducted a point of distribution exercise last month in preparation for the COVID-19 vaccine. SEARHC has also been conducting drive-thru flu shot clinics in Haines to prepare for distributing the vaccines.

The timeline for Skagway is less certain. According to Dahl Memorial Clinic executive director Este Fielding, a small shipment is expected to arrive there sometime during the second half of December.

“That will be Phase 1A, and that is slated for healthcare workers and first responders,” Fielding said. “The state has told us that after that we should be able to order subsequent shipments on a regular basis, probably monthly, to meet the next phases.”

Fielding said Skagway would more than likely receive the Moderna vaccine once it’s authorized because it doesn’t need to be kept as cold as the Pfizer vaccine.

“They were a little bit worried about the smaller towns that didn’t have ultra-cold storage, how that would look for the Pfizer vaccine, so they recommended the Moderna for us.”

About 50 people in Skagway will be eligible to receive a vaccine during the first phase of distribution. While clinic staff will be vaccinated in-house, first responders will participate in a drive-thru. The Moderna vaccine is administered in two shots, 28 days apart.

Fielding said it would be provided at no cost to the patient.

 

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