With many Alaska vaccine appointments unfilled, officials want you to know: You could be ‘essential’

Bartlett Pharmacist Khalid Srour prepares the Pfizer vaccine for dosing during Juneau's COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Centennial Hall on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
Bartlett Pharmacist Khalid Srour prepares the Pfizer vaccine for dosing during Juneau’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Centennial Hall on Jan. 15 in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

A 21-year-old with an asthma inhaler, a 30-year-old oil roughneck and a 56-year-old freelance graphic designer walk into a brew pub in Alaska. What do they have in common?

No, this isn’t a joke: All of them are newly eligible to be vaccinated — plus the bartender, too.

After months of tight vaccine supply, the state of Alaska last week made a massive expansion of the groups eligible for shots. But it’s not clear that the expanded criteria are fully registering with Alaskans yet, public health officials said at a briefing for reporters Monday.

And as hundreds of vaccine appointments remain unfilled across the state, those officials are trying to spread the message that more people are now allowed to get the shots.

“I think that there’s still a real sense of vaccine limited supply, or like it’s a constrained resource,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. “And while it’s not fully plentiful, it feels like the sun: We’ve got a lot more than we ever had before.”

Alaska, where roughly one-fourth of residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, already ranks among the states with the highest vaccination rates.

But with a major boost in vaccine shipments headed to the state this month, officials are continuing their efforts to make sure the doses get used. They also said Monday that discussions are already happening about moving from the current, final phase of prioritized vaccine distribution to a system where shots are available to anyone who wants them.

“It will likely happen sooner than we were initially thinking, just because of the additional vaccine that we’re receiving,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, a top state vaccine official. “More to come, but it’s definitely a conversation we’re having, currently.”

Early phases of the vaccine rollout were tightly restricted to people like health-care providers and elders.

Last week, shots opened to a much wider group. But appointments aren’t being quickly snapped up — a state database shows hundreds available in Anchorage and elsewhere. In Soldotna, a hundred open appointments remain for Thursday at the local Fred Meyer grocery store. In Valdez, there are more than 150 available for a Thursday clinic at the local civic center.

Appointments might be filling more slowly than usual because it’s spring break this week, and any unused doses will be held over for another clinic next week, said Allie Ferko, a Valdez municipal spokeswoman. But local officials are also trying to alert people to the new eligibility standards, which she said may be a factor in appointments not filling more quickly.

“The clinic was scheduled right around the same time the new eligibility criteria were published by the state, so I think there’s still a lot of education around who falls in that category and how many people actually do qualify,” she said.

Health officials said at Monday’s briefing that they’re trying to make sure people are aware of just how broad the new eligibility guidelines are.

“I’ve been saying that if you think that you might qualify, you probably do,” Walker Linderman said.

Some of the groups eligible under the new criteria include anyone 55 or older, any grandparent that lives with a grandchild and anyone with a medical problem that puts them at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19, as defined either by the CDC or your doctor.

The new groups also include essential workers, as defined by a 24-page federal document drafted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. That document includes employees at restaurants and grocery stores, in the oil and seafood industries, and in public transit, aviation and seafood processing workers.

Public health officials across the state are trying to educate Alaskans about the new criteria. The state is contacting industry representatives in oil, fishing and mining, along with unions and churches, Walker Linderman said.

It’s also trying to directly contact individual employers, with call center employees preparing to do that work, she added. In Valdez, Ferko said, a state public health nurse is calling businesses around town to let them know their employees are eligible.

“She’s been doing that one-on-one employer outreach,” Ferko said. “And then we’ve got a pretty robust communications program between social media and radio ads and that type of thing — so it’s a matter of that information filtering out to everyone and them understanding that they’re eligible, and then getting past spring break.”

Health officials Monday identified restaurant workers as one large, newly eligible group.

At the Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage, even before last week, the human resources department had been promoting vaccinations for older employees who’d qualified under earlier criteria, said Kara Schneider, a manager there. As soon as the expanded criteria was announced, she added, human resources “had us telling everybody, so they could get appointments.”

Employees at the Bear Tooth, and its affiliated businesses like Moose’s Tooth, are awarded a $25 gift card as an incentive once they get their second dose of vaccine, Schneider said. But the large restaurant, which had roughly 200 employees before the pandemic started, is likely better positioned to encourage vaccinations than smaller businesses in the same industry, she added.

“We have a dedicated HR department,” she said. “Whereas someone who’s a mom and pop restaurant is kind of muddling through this. We have someone we can call, and we’ve been so lucky to have that resource.”

The Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, a leading industry group, didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.

Officials are encouraging anyone interested in getting a vaccine to take an eligibility quiz available on the state’s website, covidvax.alaska.gov. There’s also a hotline available at 907-646-3322.

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