LISTEN: Alaska’s top doctor says misinformation hurts vaccination effort

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, is vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dr. Michael Alter, Emergency Medicine Specialist at Mat-su Regional Medical Center on Dec. 18.
(Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

Health officials want Alaskans to know COVID-19 vaccines have not killed anyone in the state — or anywhere in the country.

They’re responding to a misleading report this week from conservative blog Alaska Watchman, which posted an article titled “At least five Alaskans died and 111 suffered adverse reactions after COVID vaccines.”

The Watchman article relied on data from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System but failed to explain that data doesn’t mean vaccines caused deaths or adverse reactions.

Responding to questions about the report, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said there’s been a lot of misinformation about vaccines, and red herrings about their safety — such as the Watchman report — are not helping the vaccination effort.


Dr. Anne Zink: So even if you have someone who’s on hospice and expected to die after they’ve gotten vaccinated if they do pass away, we’ve asked the CDC, do you want someone like that to be reported into their system? And they say, “absolutely.” They want anyone who has died post-vaccine for any reason to be put in. And you can see this in the trials as well.

So for example, in the trials, one person was struck by lightning, and it’s reported in the trial data. It doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused them to be struck by lightning, they just want to look for any potential reaction and any potential side effect. And then what the CDC does is they look at kind of the baseline rates of those arrhythmias, the baseline rates of lightning strikes, and they see if there’s a difference between people who were vaccinated and not vaccinated to determine if that’s a potential risk.

And so all of that data all of that VAERS data is on the federal website on the CDC website and can be seen by anybody in the public. And you can go and take a look at it. Unfortunately, I think that people are misinterpreting that data as an adverse reaction when it’s just humans being humans and it’s a way for us to make sure that we’re reporting in data and for the CDC to be able to look at it and make sure there’s no abnormal patterns seen in it.

Casey Grove: So to be clear, the report that we’re talking about came from this website, The Watchman, and for them to report that five people have died after getting the vaccine and more than 100 have had adverse reactions. Does that sort of set back the vaccination effort to have that misinformation out there?

AZ: Well, I think just in the emails that I got, in the time that they released it to today, there’s a lot of people who emailed me who said, “I read this, and I’m really concerned, what does this mean?”

And so it takes time. I’m always happy to answer questions and so as our team to explain where the data really comes from, and why that five people did not die from the vaccine: five people died after vaccination, but looking through their history, they had multiple underlying health factors, and some of them were actually on hospice and expected to pass away.

So I think it’s important to put the data into context and unfortunately, if it’s not put into context, it can really scare people from potentially choosing to get a life-saving vaccine that can protect them from a virus that has been ravaging our world and has been causing incredible loss, both with people getting sick and dying and unfortunately, the real economic consequences that comes to a lot of people being sick and being out as well. So we are all better off with more healthy and well together. And this vaccine is a strong and useful tool to get there as quickly as possible.

CG: Do you think that people will be so worried about it, they just won’t get the vaccine? And are you seeing that already?

AZ: I am worried that people won’t get the vaccine because of misinformation. And I am concerned by the number of people who are expressing that, that information — they don’t have the context behind it and so they’re taking that as that five people died from the vaccine itself. So I am concerned that that is not only going to slow down the vaccine efforts. But more importantly, for that individual trying to make an individual decision, it’s really important that they have the information at hand and in full context to make the best decision for them and their family. And it’s important to put that, that data into context.

CG: There’s still hundreds of appointments for vaccines available through February, at least here in Southcentral. Why isn’t the state opening up those appointments for teachers or other groups? And are you getting a lot of pushback for that?

AZ: Yes, we are getting a lot of pushback, for sure. We are pausing a bit on this senior level right now. We just really want to make sure that those 65 and older, are vaccinated as soon as possible, partially because they are the group that represents you know – they’re just over 10% of the population, but over 70% of the deaths and over 50% of the hospitalizations. It’s been challenging for some of them to navigate the website, the call line and to know that it’s their turn to get vaccinated.

However, we understand that every single day we wait is a day that someone else isn’t getting vaccinated, and that looms large on our shoulders. We want to get vaccines out fast. And we want to do it fair.

So we are looking at when we open up the next tiers, overall. We’ve had a bunch of meetings with the communities. And in general, most communities are telling us that while there’s appointments open that many of them are getting filled up, it’s just taking a bit more time. And they have plans for a lot of that vaccine. But we are really trying to give it this week to see how many how many of those appointments are filled. We will be looking at the data next week. And then really making a decision about where we move forward.

CG: When can we anticipate the opening of additional tiers for eligibility?

I think that mid-February we’ll be communicating some clarity on the next tiers as well sharing the information about what 1C is looking like so people kind of know what’s up and coming next.

As I think many people are aware, there’s a third vaccine now going through the FDA review process and so we also want to see what that looks like because that will also change our March allocation to be able to see if we can move and kind of move through more tiers more quickly. I suspect that some communities will be opening up additional vaccine sites in February to the beginning part of the next year. However, I think most communities will be moving into the next tier with the March allocation.

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