Cases are rising again, but Alaska’s rate of vaccination is slowing

Anchorage Health Department public health nurse Marguerite Leeds prepares to administer the Covid-19 vaccine during the community vaccine clinic held at Manai Fou Assembly of God Church in Airport Heights on Feb. 23, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage COVID-19 vaccinations are starting to plateau, while cases are rising. And that has the Anchorage’s epidemiologist, Dr. Janet Johnston, worried.

“When I looked at the numbers, at the end of last week, our cases had gone up 20%. And our vaccines had only gone up about 6%,” said Johnston, with the Anchorage Health Department. “So the whole idea of cases outpacing vaccine is extremely concerning.”

Statewide, the number of vaccine doses administered each day is also slowing after an initial blitz of shots.

For months, Alaska ranked among the nation’s top states for the share of its population given at least one shot of the vaccine. But now it’s fallen to 10th place, according to national rankings published by The New York Times.

While a slowdown was inevitable at some point, health officials say the state is still far from reaching herd immunity — a point where enough people are protected from the virus that it no longer spreads easily through the population.

They’re urging more Alaskans to get vaccinated. The state has enough shots, said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist.

“We have more vaccines than we have people who are willing to go in and make appointments and get vaccinated,” he said. “So, we need to change that. We want Alaska to get back up into that No. 1 position.

Statewide, 43% of Alaskans eligible for the vaccine — those age 16 and older — have gotten at least their first dose, while one-third are fully vaccinated, according to state data.

But the vaccination rates vary widely by region.

They’re highest in parts of rural Alaska, where tribal health care providers launched early and aggressive campaigns to deliver shots. Areas with some of the lowest vaccination rates include the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Fairbanks area and the North Slope Borough.

In Anchorage, 35% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, which is slightly higher than the state average.

“So that’s good, but it’s not good enough. It’s nowhere near what we need for herd immunity,” said Johnston, the city epidemiologist. “Somewhere between 70% and 90% of the entire population is what we’re going to need to really have it so we can keep cases extremely low and just not even think about it.”

Johnston said the challenge now is convincing Alaskans who are hesitant about the vaccine to get the shots. Those eager for the vaccine likely already got at least their first dose. A month has passed since Alaska became the first state in the country to open eligibility to all residents age 16 and up.

“The people who wanted it the most were the ones who were just refreshing their screen over and over again until they could get an appointment early on,” said Johnston. “Those are the people who, as more vaccines became available, got doses.”

Johnston believes there’s another group of residents who will get the shot eventually but aren’t as enthusiastic about it. Some of those people might be waiting for more single-dose vaccine to become available, which is worrisome, she said, because of rising Anchorage case numbers and recent delays to Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine production.

“We’re close to 25 cases per 100,000 residents, on average, over the past two weeks. That’s a lot of cases. And we’re starting to see more variants,” she said. “We want people vaccinated so that they’re not getting sick, they’re not getting hospitalized, they’re not at risk for long-term COVID.”

Nationwide, concerns are growing that vaccine hesitancy and refusal could stop the country from reaching herd immunity. In a recent NPR/Marist poll, one in four Americans said they would refuse a vaccine if offered one, and another 5% were undecided.

In Anchorage, Johnston said the city health department continues to focus on educating Alaskans about the vaccine and ensuring shots are available in more places — from doctor’s offices to churches to a local mall.

“It’s a big lift to get that high coverage and low case rates,” Johnston said. “But that’s when we’ll be able to really get back to a pre-COVID normal.”

Meanwhile, the state health department is trying to combat vaccine misinformation, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. It continues to coordinate with health care providers to give local presentations.

“We would really encourage you, if you serve a PTA, if you serve a rotary club, if your community has questions about it, please ask our team,” she said.

The state also still wants to increase vaccination among older Alaskans, who are most at risk of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus, said McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist.

Just two-thirds of Alaskans age 65 and up are fully vaccinated so far. The state recently sent about 35,000 postcards encouraging non-vaccinated seniors to make an appointment.

“We want to make sure that our seniors are fully vaccinated as quickly as possible,” McLaughlin said.

He underscored that the sooner more people get vaccinated, the sooner more people can resume their pre-pandemic routines.

“As we go on with this pandemic and more and more people become vaccinated, that is our ticket out of all the restrictions and masking, the social distancing — all of them,” McLaughlin said. “But we need to have a high enough proportion of the population vaccinated and immune to the virus to be able to get back to normal.”

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