Y-K Delta ahead of schedule on COVID-19 vaccination

A shipment of COVID-19 Pfizer vaccinations lands in Bethel, Alaska and is transferred to a deep freezer at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation on December 16, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

This week, people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are beginning to receive their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Already over 1,550 people in the region have received their first dose of the vaccine. While many areas of the nation have fallen behind schedule in their COVID-19 vaccinations, the opposite is happening in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“I feel like we’re past the vaccination level that I expected to be,” said Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. She’s one of the main people organizing the region’s vaccination distribution.

Hodges said that one of the reasons they’re is ahead of schedule is that they received more vaccine than they expected. In mid-December, the health corporation received a vaccine allocation from the State of Alaska along with an unexpectedly large allocation from the Indian Health Service. In total, YKHC received over 4,000 doses of the vaccine.

Frontline health care workers were the first priority for vaccination.

“Because preservation of health care capacity is essential to handle the pandemic,” Hodges said. “But then the very next priority for me were our Elders, who are disproportionately affected. So much disproportionately affected by this disease.”

Vaccinations for people 65 and older began in the region weeks ahead other areas of the state. People in this age group are more likely to develop a severe illness if they contract the virus. Many live in crowded homes, some without running water, and they are a critical part of society.

“The Elders in our region are the culture bearers of the culture here, and I think that’s essential,” Hodges said.

YKHC has begun flying to villages to vaccinate Elders and front-line essential workers. Beginning next week, anyone living in a village aged 16 or older will be eligible for a vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for people ages 16 and older, and for the Moderna vaccine for people ages 18 and older.

All YKHC employees are eligible to receive the vaccine now, but it’s not mandatory. Hodges said that the health corporation is not tracking how many employees have declined a vaccination. Hodges says some have declined it because they currently have COVID-19 or have recently recovered from the virus.

“We’re trying to catch up those people, who’ve either changed their minds, they want it now, or they were unable to get it on the first round for whatever reason,” Hodges said.

Bethel has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the nation, and many surrounding villages have ongoing community spread of the virus. YKHC urges everyone to continue hunkering down until widespread vaccination has occurred.

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