First COVID-19 vaccine clinics for Alaskans 65 and older set for next week

A podium with a piece of paper taped up saying 'covid vaccine clinic'
Soldotna Professional Pharmacy held a coronavirus vaccine clinic on Jan. 4, 2020 for healthcare workers who work directly with patients (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

The state announced Alaskans 65 and older can get the coronavirus vaccine starting Jan. 11.

Originally, the state told providers they couldn’t start vaccinating seniors until later in January. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink attributed the change to resolution of eligibility and scheduling questions.

It’s a relief to Soldotna Professional Pharmacy co-owner Justin Ruffridge. His pharmacy has been vaccinating many included in the first phases of vaccine allocation, mainly long-term care residents and employees, and some healthcare workers.

Before getting the green light, Ruffridge worried smaller communities would finish vaccinating priority groups before urban areas would, creating a lag.

“I think there was some concern about that just because the Tier 3 group, which is direct healthcare folks, seemed to maybe already be registered for their vaccines this week,” Ruffridge said. “And then, potentially, we had other clinics scheduled already for the following weeks and were really uncertain as to who were going to fill those up. And we hadn’t heard from the state yet about whether or not they were going to open it up to that 65-and-older crew.”

The Kenai Peninsula’s population skews older, which means it could have more people to vaccinate in the next tier. The Soldotna pharmacy’s first clinics for Alaskans 65 years and older are scheduled for Jan. 14 and 15.

On Monday, the pharmacy did its first in-house vaccine clinic for healthcare workers who work directly with patients. Before, staff were traveling to long-term care facilities to do clinics there.

Ruffridge thinks they’ll be done vaccinating healthcare workers mid-week, at which point they’ll start administering second doses of the vaccine to long-term care residents and staff.

The state is using an app called Prepmod that Ruffridge said made the process run more smoothly.

“The state had us enroll in an online registration site that also runs the clinic, so people can wait outside and then come in only when it’s their time,” he said. “We were uncertain of how that would run, but so far it’s run really well. We’ve been able to do two shots at a time, every 10 minutes. We’ll finish with about 80 vaccines today.”

They’re administering the Moderna vaccine. The pharmacy got 300 doses of it, on top of 400 Pfizer-BioNTech doses it received in mid-December. It’s a lot of moving parts.

“We were doing everything relatively manually, creating calendars, spreadsheets, and we were putting in a lot of manpower,” Ruffridge said. “This allows you to sort of say, ‘You came here, you got a shot, you must enroll in the second one,’ and they send email reminders and everything. It works out really nice.”

But the process hasn’t been without its bumps.

The state opened an online appointment portal last week for medical providers to finish lining up to get vaccinated. The day after, the state’s allocation committee announced the next group to be vaccinated would include seniors over 65.

The website wasn’t supposed to allow that group to use the portal yet, but it didn’t screen them out. Over the weekend, health officials said friends were sending each other the link to covidvax.alaska.gov, encouraging each other to sign up.

Health officials said a lot of people signed up for appointments out of order. The state is asking those who aren’t in the current tiers for vaccination to cancel their appointments. Seniors can keep theirs.

According to the state website, Peninsula Community Health Services and Fred Meyer will also begin vaccinating eligible recipients this week.

Registration for Alaskans in the 65 and over age bracket opened Jan. 6. You can schedule an appointment at covidvax.alaska.gov.

KUAC’s Robyne contributed to this story.