When Alaska became the first state to open COVID-19 vaccine access to all adults in the beginning of March, appointments filled up fast because of limited supply.
Three weeks later, there’s plenty of vaccine, about a third of Anchorage residents are fully vaccinated, more than the state average. Now, as vaccine appointments go unfilled, health officials are working on finding and vaccinating people where they work and worship.
One arm of that effort has focused on bringing the vaccine to minority and underserved groups who, for a variety of reasons including lack of health insurance, language barriers and work schedules, may not have an easy time getting to a vaccine appointment.
“Now we’re really into a place where we just need easier access,” said Anchorage Health Director Heather Harris.
The city has brought vaccine clinics to sports arenas, hotels, and churches, targeting segments of the community from LGBTQ+ to Hmong residents to hospitality workers. On Sunday it brought workers from a contracted vaccine provider to Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Anchorage’s Fairview neighborhood for a special post-Sunday service clinic.
Felicia Weaver was one of the handful of volunteers to get the shot at Shiloh. She was visibly tense before getting poked, but said it didn’t hurt as much as she thought it would. She said hearing from her boss, the Pastor Undra Parker, helped convince her to get it.
“He told me he had got it. And he was fine. And, and he thought that it would be good if I did get it,” she said.
Only a few more volunteers roll in after the service, but health officials say that’s progress.
“We are really focused on bringing vaccine, whatever small amount to locations to do folks that might otherwise have access issues. And if that’s, you know, 150 dose clinic we have to do over the next few months at every little church in town then that’s what we’re doing,” said Christy Lawton, who spearheads the city’s effort for vaccine equity.
She said that while filling appointments is hard, a community advisory board on vaccine equity that the city created in January has had growing engagement as community leaders brainstorm creative ways to bring vaccine to their communities. The group, which meets weekly, now has about 50 members.
“We have probably more requests now than we’ve got staff to mobilize so we’re trying to get to all of them as fast as we can,” she said.
The city has organized clinics at a handful of Pacific Islander churches, held popup clinics for refugees, and is planning more for the LGBTQ+ community.
Through the task force, the city has learned a lot, like the popularity of no-appointment drive-in clinics, and the need for clinics early and late in the day for those who work odd hours. But the biggest takeaway has been to make people comfortable in places they know.
“If they can see a familiar face or if they hear their own language being spoken, I think that those have been huge takeaways,” said Lawton.
There are signs that the city’s efforts are yielding successes. While data on race is incomplete for vaccination numbers, Blacks and Asians have been getting vaccinated at rates comparable to the city’s white population.
Lawton said that another incidental benefit of the equity effort is increased community engagement with the health department.
“1000%” she said, “This really has amplified the connections and created so many new partnerships than we’ve ever had before.”
Those benefits, she hopes, will play out when addressing other public health needs in the future.