Roughly 40% of the Chilkat Valley — home of Haines and Klukwan — has gotten a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s nearly ten times the national average.
The clinic is run by a tribal health nonprofit that gets its vaccine through Indian Health Services rather than the state. It’s been prioritized because it’s so remote.
Over the course of two days, the Haines Health Center ceased normal appointments to give about 600 people from Haines and Klukwan their first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
The set up was efficient: fast and thorough. A team of nurses screened patients at the door. Clinic Director Stephanie Pattison handed out forms and directed people to the waiting room. Staff started the days at 8:30 a.m. and worked into the evening.
Pattison said she wasn’t tired though.
“It’s adrenaline!” she said. “We’re so excited!”
And then nurses whisked people into rooms for a briefing and a quick shot. Some wore glitter makeup: COVID fairies, they said.
A small, colorful bandage to the arm, a few instructions, and then it was downstairs to another waiting room for fifteen minutes, just in case anyone has an allergic reaction. One resident described it as a social hour.
The influx of 600 doses of vaccine is a lot for a small, rural community. Pattison says that’s because Indian Health Services distributes vaccines to the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, or SEARHC. They come to IHS directly from the federal government.
“SEARHC decided that they wanted to push them out to the communities that do not have hospital access, direct hospital access … especially the communities that can be socked in and not have that hospital support,” she said.
The nearest hospital is in Juneau, 100 miles away by small plane or ferry. And non-Indigenous members of the community also benefited from the rollout. Roughly 900 people have received a first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in Haines and Klukwan. To be sure, that’s only half the vaccinations needed for “herd immunity” according to federal experts. But it’s head and shoulders above most of the nation.
Just 18 miles up the Lynn Canal, Skagway hasn’t seen the same availability of vaccines yet, even though it’s just as remote. The municipal clinic got enough doses of the Moderna vaccine to fully vaccinate 50 people and has been waiting for more. The difference is in the distribution. The state of Alaska distributes vaccines to Skagway’s municipal clinic.
“It’s been a little little touch and go here recently,” said Borough Manager Brad Ryan.
“We were told we weren’t going to get a January allotment. And then this morning, we were told that we can have Pfizer.”
He says the municipality is moving forward with the Pfizer option. He expects they will receive 300 doses and is waiting on confirmation from the Department of Health and Social Services. If all goes according to plan, the doses should arrive by plane in time for a Friday vaccine clinic.
“I believe the community wants it … that’s what I hear, people want it. And I really hope this next round comes through. It’d be huge for a small community that’s kind of remote like this. Hopefully, Skagway can get its vaccines underway and getting the majority of the adult population that wants it,” he said.
The state is not moving slowly compared to the rest of the nation. There are about seven doses per hundred people in Alaska so far, compared to four per hundred nationally. As of Monday afternoon, only West Virginia had a higher rate.