Alaska will be first in U.S. to offer COVID-19 vaccines to all adults

a vial of covid-19 vaccine
A vial of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at the community vaccine clinic held at Manai Fou Assembly of God Church in Airport Heights on Feb. 23, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska will become the first state in the country to open COVID-19 vaccinations to anyone 16 and older, officials announced Tuesday, capping a swift rollout of the shots that’s capitalized on tens of thousands of extra doses shipped to and administered by tribal health care providers.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the expanded eligibility in a prepared statement Tuesday afternoon, with a news conference scheduled for later in the evening. It’s effective immediately, officials said. Anyone who lives or works in Alaska is eligible.

“I couldn’t be prouder of Alaska’s response,” the statement quoted Dunleavy as saying. “From being the first state to offer widespread testing, to maintaining one of the lowest mortality rates in the country, to rolling out vaccinations to every willing Alaskan, we got here by working together.”

Watch the governor’s press conference

Health officials in previous days had hinted that they might take such a step, suggesting that vaccine hesitancy and confusion about previously broadened eligibility guidelines were leaving appointments unfilled across the state.

About a quarter of Alaskans have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, giving the state one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. In many rural communities, vaccination rates far exceed 50%, with some villages hitting 90% or higher.

Alaska’s state-sponsored distribution effort has seen a major boost from its tribal health care partners, which have been allotted separate shipments of vaccine through a unique partnership with the federal government — aimed at recognizing both tribes’ sovereign status and COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Alaska Native people.

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A series of national news outlets have featured the successes of the parallel vaccination efforts, which have leveraged bush planes, snowmachines and boats to get doses to remote Alaska communities in the depths of winter.

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

Up until last week, the state limited vaccinations to health care workers, teachers, and people aged 50 and older who worked in certain front-line essential positions or suffered from certain pre-existing health conditions.

But last week, buoyed by a major boost in the number of shots being shipped to the state, officials announced that vaccinations would open to a far broader group: all essential workers, anyone 55 and over and anyone with a health condition that could put them at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

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Even after that announcement, though, hundreds of appointments were going unfilled in Anchorage and elsewhere around the state.

Now appointments will be open to anyone 16 and over, although 16- and 17-year-olds will only be eligible for the vaccine manufactured by drug company Pfizer, as the two other vaccines on the market are only authorized for people 18 and older.

You can find more information about vaccine eligibility and book appointments through the state’s vaccine website.

This is a breaking news story — check back for updates.