LISTEN: What will it take for Alaska to return to normal after the pandemic?

A girld in a purple tank top gets a shot from a white man in a red masik
Lucy Wheat gets her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, May 13, 2021 (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

In many places, life is starting to feel almost normal again. Nearly 50 percent of Alaskans are now fully vaccinated. What does this mean for what people can do in public, while traveling and when visiting businesses? And what are the plans for convincing more Alaskans to get the shot to protect those with vulnerable immune systems? Now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for ages 12 to 15, how much will vaccinating teens help?

HOST: Lori Townsend

GUESTS:

  • Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska Chief Medical Officer
  • Dr. Joe McLaughlin, State Epidemiologist 

Highlights:

Dr. Anne Zink on the current vaccination effort in Alaska:

“I heard a great line this morning that said, ‘As we climb this hill, it gets steeper with each step.’ That seems true. At the beginning. The big limitation was the amount of vaccine that we had in the state but a lot of people were eager and ready to get vaccinated. It was great to be able to get that out.

But as we continue to move it across the state and try to increase the percent of our population that’s vaccinated, it is slowing down and it is taking more work and effort. Alaskans have great questions and we want to make sure that we have transparent, timely information to make help them make the choice. And we really feel strongly that these incredibly safe, incredibly efficacious vaccines — they’re the reason that we got vaccinated, the reason we are getting our children vaccinated, and the reason we’re encouraging our friends and family to get vaccinated. We’re trying to make sure we’re just reducing any barrier for people to get vaccinated, be it misinformation access, these are free and easily accessible across the state.”

Dr. Zink on the ongoing COVID outbreaks in Ketchikan and Metlakatla

“We continue to see kind of surges and outbreaks, particularly when we don’t have super high vaccine rates. We saw this initially in Petersburg, we thought in Fairbanks, and unfortunately, we are seeing it down now in Ketchikan and Metlakatla. Vaccines are the ticket out of this pandemic. And that is the reason we want to do everything we can to encourage people to get vaccinated, even if you’ve previously had COVID-19.

It’s just heartbreaking to see people still get so sick from this disease. Again, many people do very well, but some people do really get quite sick and quite ill. The vast majority greater than 98% of our hospitalizations are all people who are unvaccinated. Unvaccinated people tend to be a younger population and tend to be a healthier population, but that doesn’t mean that our younger folks are completely immune. And that’s why we really encourage vaccination across the board. So continue to support Ketchikan in Metlakatla in whatever ways we can, as they kind of work through this surge of cases.” 

Dr. Joe McLaughlin on recent COVID-19 outbreaks

“Remember, when these big outbreaks occur, it really slows down everything in those communities and slows down the local economy because people have to be in isolation and quarantine. People have to be more hunkered down when you’ve got a large outbreak like that.”

Dr. Anne Zink on efforts to boost vaccination rates

“We set a goal for each borough and census area to see if they could increase their vaccine rate by 25% in the month of May. It’s a big lift, big challenge for sure to see if they can get that direction. But really, again, the goal was to partner with communities and see what they could do to move that direction. We’re seeing some tremendous progress across the state, you can go up to our “sleeves up for summer” dashboard and see where we’re at. And we are seeing communities reaching 70%, 80% of that goal already. So we’re really excited to see what we can pull off in this last bit of the month.”

Dr. Joe McLaughlin on new research about the long term effects of COVID-19

“Every week, there are new articles coming out on these long term effects of COVID. And just recently, there was one article that came out that indicated that men who are under 50, who have had asymptomatic infection, may be at increased risk for stroke, because of their SARS-COV2 infection. These are people who didn’t have any symptoms at all, they were just silently infected. And this was a study that actually came out of Singapore showing that that this is a potential concern. So I think we are going to be seeing more and more evidence and articles and scientific research on long COVID in the in the weeks and months ahead.”

Dr Zink on who should not get vaccinated

“There are very few people who cannot get these vaccines. Even people who are immunocompromised on immunosuppressive medication, undergoing cancer treatment, have had bad allergic reactions to food or other medications  — they can all get these vaccines. The only people who can’t or really such as people who have had an anaphylactic or really bad shortness of breath, rash, that sort of reaction to this vaccine, or a similar injectable vaccine.”

Dr. McLaughlin on COVID variants in Alaska

“So we are seeing the variants of concern here in Alaska. Fortunately, the proportion of positives for these variants of concern in Alaska is much lower than we’re seeing in the Lower 48. But the predominant strain that we’ve been seeing as to B.1.1.7, that emerged out of the UK. We have seen some cases of the P.1 variant out of Brazil, and some cases of the B.1.351 out of South Africa as well. But again, not high numbers in Alaska. 

Right now in the Lower 48 are actually in the United States, CDC has reported that about three quarters of all the strains that had been sequenced had been the B.1.1.7. So that has now become the predominant strain in the US. Fortunately, the vaccines that we have in the US are all very highly effective against, especially that B1.1.7 strain. They’re also protective against the B.1.351 and the P.1.”

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for Alaska Public Media. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for nearly 30 years. Radio brought her to Alaska, where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting before accepting a reporting/host position with APRN in 2003. APRN merged with Alaska Public Media a year later. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. 

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