COVID-19 vaccines may soon come to Alaska’s busiest airports

a person administers a vaccine to another person
An Alaskan receiving a Covid-19 vaccination at the Anchorage School District Education Center on Jan. 7, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaskans and out-of-state workers might soon have a new place to get a COVID-19 vaccine: The state’s four busiest airports.

The state health department is gauging interest from contractors that could set up vaccine sites beyond the TSA checkpoints at airports in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan.

“This is one additional place to be present to make it easy and convenient for people,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in an interview Wednesday. “We all benefit from vaccination. So, the more people that get vaccinated, the better.”

Offering single-dose shots at airports could be a key piece of the state’s vaccination puzzle, Zink said, especially with travel in Alaska expected to spike over the summer, between seasonal workers and tourists, and Alaskans coming and going.

A woman wearing scrubs and a face mask receives a shot from a man in scrubs and a mask.
Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, is vaccinated against COVID-19 on Dec. 18. (Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

“I think of all the fishermen who come in mid-season,” said Zink. “To be able to get vaccinated right when they come in, it gives us some time for that immunity to build before they’re in our more rural areas.”

So far, about forty percent of Alaskans age 16 and up have gotten at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That makes Alaska one of the country’s most-vaccinated states, thanks in part to an aggressive campaign by tribal health care providers to deliver shots. 

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Zink said the four airport sites would offer a vaccine to people arriving at their final destination or on a layover. Who qualifies would depend on how much vaccine is available.

While the state doesn’t currently have enough single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to offer it to all travelers, Zink expects it eventually will.

“At some point, we have to collectively all think about how we get vaccines out across not only the state, but across the country and across the world overall,” she said. “And if this is another additional way to help people get vaccinated, then we can figure it out.”

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There’s no exact date for when vaccine sites might pop up at Alaska airports. Interested companies have until the end of the month to submit potential plans to the state. 

Zink said she hasn’t heard of other states vaccinating travelers at airports. Many still have yet to open up vaccine eligibility to all adults.

“I think we’re just more unique in our hub-and-spoke model and geography,” she said. 

A year into the pandemic, Zink said it feels like Alaska is finally playing offense against the virus, as it plans ways to vaccinate more people.

“And that feels super exciting,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have defense and offense at the same time, to be able to play the game. So, that’s why we’re asking people to keep up these mitigation strategies until we really can get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can.”

As for the path forward, Zink said it’ll depend on the spread of more-contagious coronavirus variants. That’s the big unknown.

“How many more innings we need to play really depends on which variants become predominant or don’t become predominant,” Zink said. “That being said, I think every person that gets vaccinated gets us closer, even with the variants, to really putting this pandemic behind us.”

Already, the state offers COVID-19 testing at several airports, and Zink said that will continue. For travelers, the testing turned optional last month when Alaska’s statewide COVID-19 emergency declaration expired.

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Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.