Alaska has opened COVID-19 vaccines to a big, new group. Here’s who’s eligible and how to find a shot.

a person receives a vaccination
Anchorage School District registered nurse Jennifer Perkins (right) administers the Moderna Covid-19 vaccination to retired chemistry teacher David Boyd (left). Boyd was one of 771 people who received vaccines at the ASD Education Center on Jan. 7, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Starting Thursday, a big group of Alaskans became newly eligible for COVID-19 vaccines from the state.

Here’s what we know about who can get a shot now, and where to sign up.

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Who’s now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine?

Previously, the state was just vaccinating Alaskans age 65 and older and most health care workers. 

They’re all still eligible to sign-up for vaccines, and then there’s a big group that’s newly eligible. 

The state breaks that group down into six categories:

People age 50 and up who have certain medical conditions that put them at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. Those medical conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease and Down syndrome. They also include obesity, smoking and pregnancy. Read the full list here.

Frontline essential workers age 50 and up who have to work within 6 feet of others. That includes people who work in restaurants, transit, oil and gas and law enforcement, plus many others. Here’s the whole list.

Pre-K through 12th grade educators of any age as well as child care workers, support staff and Indigenous language and culture bearers. 

People living and working in congregate settings, such as prisons, homeless shelters and transitional living homes.

“Pandemic response staff,” which the state describes as people who may come in contact with the virus during response to an outbreak.

• Also, in late February, state health officials created a sort of vaccine buddy system: If you know someone who’s 65 or older, and you help them get vaccinated, you can get vaccinated yourself at the same time.

RELATED: Too young to qualify for a COVID-19 shot? Bring an unvaccinated senior with you.

How many people are in this new group?

State health officials estimate roughly 70,000 to 75,000 people.

Another way to check if you’re one of them?

The state health department has an eligibility quiz on its website

(Also, to be clear: These eligibility groups are specific to the state government’s vaccine distribution plan. Separately, tribal health care providers have their own allocations of vaccines and their own plans, and are vaccinating lots of Alaskans. And then the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Defense are vaccinating people too.)

RELATED: In rural Alaska, COVID-19 vaccines hitch a ride on planes, sleds and water taxi

What prompted the state to expand eligibility this week?

The demand for vaccine appointments had slowed down, said Tessa Walker Linderman, co-lead of Alaska’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force.

“In many communities, they had gone door-to-door and called everyone in the phone book and just could not find any more seniors to get vaccinated,” she said. “And so, opening up a new tier just gives flexibility to communities that, really, were ready to move on.”

As of Tuesday, the state estimated that just over half of Alaska’s seniors had gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’re still doing quite a bit of outreach to our seniors to make sure that anyone who wants to get vaccinated is able to,” said Walker Linderman.

What has the response been like since the state opened up eligibility?

Appointments are getting booked up — and fast.

Almost 1,100 appointments for next week at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage were posted online Thursday afternoon. And, in less than an hour, they were gone.

Ben Matheson, a data analyst at the Municipality of Anchorage’s Innovation Team, said he saw web traffic skyrocket Thursday on anchoragecovidvaccine.org, a site that helps Alaskans find vaccination appointments.

“We’ve seen a huge amount of web traffic,” he said, “and a lot of people clicking refresh and registering for appointments over the last several hours.” 

How do I book an appointment for my first dose of the vaccine? 

You can call with your health care provider to see if it has vaccines.

Also, you can check anchoragecovidvaccine.org. That website shows a list of available appointments from providers that use a system called PrepMod, including the mass vaccination clinics like the Alaska Airlines Center.

Another website, anchoragecovidvaccine.org/providers, shows all providers that are offering vaccines to the public.

(There’s more info, including tutorials on how to use the websites, at covidvax.alaska.gov.)

You can also call the state’s COVID information hotline at 907-646-3322.

RELATED: With more vaccines arriving in Alaska, state debuts new appointment hotline

Barry Piser, public information officer for the Anchorage Health Department, recommended Alaskans become familiar with the appointment tools, and regularly check back for openings.

“Be patient, but be ready,” he said.

Where do I schedule my second dose?

You should schedule that appointment with the provider that gave you your first dose, said Walker Linderman.

When will eligibility be expanded again?

That’s not yet decided. 

Walker Linderman said the state will likely focus on the current eligible group for “quite a while.”

According to the state’s website, the next eligible group would include people age 55 and older, as well as certain people age 16 and up, including frontline essential workers with a high-risk medical condition, among others.

What other questions do you have about the COVID-19 vaccine? Email reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org.

Note: This story was updated after the state health department expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to Alaskans who help a senior get vaccinated.