For Kenai Peninsula pharmacist, COVID-19 vaccine fight tests friendships

Justin Ruffridge checks in a patient at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Cooper Landing school on Saturday. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

When Sienna Griggs went to get her COVID-19 vaccine at a Kenai Peninsula clinic last week, she almost panicked as a volunteer got the needle ready.

“With so much information out there and all the misinformation that’s coming out from both sides, it was overwhelming,” Griggs said afterward, standing outside the school building where the clinic took place. “She was almost putting it in my arm, and I was like, ‘Okay, everything’s going to be fine, right? It’s going to be fine?’”

Griggs, a 31-year-old teacher from Soldotna, went through with the shot. But she said she felt pressured not to by a number of more politically conservative family members who are still refusing the vaccine.

Vaccine hesitancy is a widespread phenomenon on the Kenai Peninsula, where vaccination rates are lagging, and several red-leaning regions of Alaska, including the Mat-Su and Fairbanks. Just 40% of eligible Kenai residents have gotten at least one shot, compared to 52% in Anchorage and 69% in Juneau, according to state data. That’s even though vaccinations have been open to everyone for more than six weeks.

RELATED: As Mat-Su vaccine appointments go unfilled, fears grow about misinformation and hesitancy

An army of public health experts and researchers across the state are trying to boost those numbers. But they aren’t key vaccine messengers, they say. Those voices are people like Justin Ruffridge — the pharmacist helping to manage the clinic where Griggs got her shot.

Ruffridge co-owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Ruffridge grew up on the Kenai and, as a conservative and a Christian, he’s part of the same demographic as some of the vaccine’s biggest skeptics.

Ruffridge’s Soldotna pharmacy does a brisk retail business, along with packaging drugs for home deliveries in the surrounding area. When the pandemic began, Ruffridge set up a COVID-19 testing operation. Later, he partnered with a tribal health care provider to package thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer for households in rural Western Alaska.

He’s also a medical professional with deep relationships in his community, which, according to colleagues, lends him credibility elected officials and other government employees lack.

Ruffridge sits on the Soldotna City Council. Through his public role and his business, he’s tried to gently steer Kenai residents into following pandemic health guidances. A sign on his pharmacy’s door says face coverings are required, but Ruffridge didn’t hassle unmasked customers in the store last week.

Similarly, he joined a majority of Soldotna council members in voting down a mask mandate late last year, saying a government requirement would be counterproductive.

In an interview at his pharmacy last week, Ruffridge said he’s tried to take a “togetherness approach” that doesn’t police other people’s decision making. But he also acknowledged being confounded by some of his friends’ and family members’ continuing unwillingness to heed his medical advice.

“If I struck oil in my backyard, I wouldn’t know what to do with that — I would call my friends in the oilfield. And whatever they said, that would be the word of truth,” Ruffridge said. “You wouldn’t tell the oil guy, ‘No, that’s not how you get oil out of the ground,’ or ‘No, that’s my ground. I’ll do what I want.’”

“I think I will lose friends”

Surveys show information shared by doctors and other medical providers is far more trusted than when it’s broadcast by politicians.

And as Alaska moves away from mass vaccination clinics for eager patients and tries to reach more hesitant people like Griggs, experts say individuals like Ruffridge are the best messengers — particularly among politically conservative and religious groups who appear less likely to sign up for the shots, according to state and national surveys.

RELATED: We asked all 60 Alaska legislators if they’re getting vaccinated. Here’s what they said.

“What we really need is more good faith conversations,” said Joy Chavez Mapaye, a University of Alaska Anchorage journalism and public communications professor who’s researched COVID-19-related messaging. “Not just on the mass media and mass communication level, but interpersonal communication — that’s communication with your friends, with your family, with your providers.”

Ruffridge initially got involved in COVID-19 testing early in the pandemic, after seeing what he described as a “massive void” in his area.

He’s since emerged as a prominent advocate for COVID-19 mitigation strategies on the Kenai, including testing and vaccination. But as he’s taken that work to forums such as right-wing talk radio and tense discussions with friends and family, he said it’s come at a cost.

Ruffridge pre-loads COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a clinic at a Soldotna school on Friday. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

“I think I will lose friends,” Ruffridge said. “And I don’t think they’re coming back.”

Both state and local public health officials say they’re looking to trusted local voices like Ruffridge’s as they try to reach groups with low levels of vaccine acceptance.

GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has recruited a speaker’s bureau of doctors to present for and take questions from community groups. The business-backed Conquer COVID Coalition has enlisted more than a dozen community leaders to record pro-vaccine videos, from tribal health executive Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson to former professional football player Mao Tosi.

RELATED: Anchorage Pacific Islander community brings COVID-19 vaccines to church

Tosi might be an ideal spokesman in Anchorage, where the city’s Pacific Islander population was among the hardest hit by COVID-19, and the least likely to be vaccinated. On the Kenai Peninsula, where much of the vaccine hesitancy appears to fall along political lines, officials say Ruffridge has been an asset in reaching people who might not be receptive to messages directly from the government.

“People will listen to him more than they will listen to us,” said Dan Nelson, the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s emergency manager. “He’s not seen as a political figure.”

A move away from mass clinics

Much of the vaccine skepticism Ruffridge has been hearing stems from people’s fears, he said: Some connected to religion, and some connected to politics. Given his own religious and political beliefs, and his deep involvement in the Central Kenai’s vaccination efforts, Ruffridge has spent a lot of time thinking about the best ways to boost acceptance among skeptics.

Last week, he was asked to review a draft flyer advertising mobile vaccinations and noticed the call hotline ended in “666” — a number in the Bible often interpreted as a reference to Satan.

“I was like, ‘I’m sort of half-joking, but can we pick any other phone number? Because that number has some negative associations with it,’” Ruffridge said.

Ruffridge has helped oversee a number of his area’s mass vaccine clinics, in partnership with local and state officials and volunteers. But now, like the rest of the state, the Kenai is starting to move toward smaller-scale efforts aimed at making the shots more accessible.

Vials of COVID-19 vaccine at Saturday’s Cooper Landing clinic. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

In Soldotna, the city is working with Ruffridge’s pharmacy to set up a storefront operation where residents can get the vaccine on a walk-in basis. Kenai’s municipal government is planning to give the shots out to salmon dipnetters at the city’s popular beaches.

Borough officials are exploring whether to boat doses across Kachemak Bay, to reach isolated communities like Halibut Cove.

For his part, Ruffridge said he’s ready for a break from the pandemic front lines. His two kids joke about how often he talks with borough emergency managers on the phone. He’s pledged to his wife he’ll have a plan to scale back by the end of the month.

But the vaccination campaign has brought some nice moments, he added, like when his pharmacy helped give shots out to nursing home residents.

“A lot of the people had not seen a young person in a long time — there was dancing, there was hugging,” he said. “People were having fun.”