This spring, Alaska was hailed as a vaccine success story – shipping doses by plane, snowmobile and boat to remote corners of the vast state. But it has gradually moved from first place to the middle of the pack in the six months since the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived here in mid-December.
In March, Alaska became the first state in the country to open vaccination to all residents 16 years of age or older, with no further eligibility restrictions. Health officials say that in the months that followed, however, a saturation of available vaccines did not translate into a corresponding number of vaccinated.
“We’re definitely seeing more supply than demand,” said Matt Bobo, director of the Alaska vaccination program, on a call with reporters Thursday.
The state even chose to donate around 3,000 doses of its recently allocated vaccine to a federal pool based on an assessment that the vaccine would not be used, Bobo said.
In contrast, some cities and states in the Lower 48 are moving towards widespread immunization coverage. The national average for ages 12 and over with at least one stroke is 61.5% while the Alaskan average is 54%. Alaska fell to 28th among states for per capita vaccinations on Thursday, according to CDC data.
This week, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that with 78% of people aged 12 and over having received at least one dose of the vaccine, “Seattle is the most vaccinated large city in the United States,” he said. reported the Seattle Times.
San Francisco was neck and neck with Seattle: The city’s vaccine tracker showed that about 79% of its eligible residents had received at least one dose of vaccine on Wednesday – at or near a “herd immunity benchmark” Which, according to epidemiologists, can occur once 70% to 80% of a population is immune to a virus.
Meanwhile, just over half of eligible Alaskans had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by Thursday morning, while a higher percentage of its more vulnerable population aged 65 and over – around three-quarters – was at least partially vaccinated.
This places Alaska’s current vaccination rate several points below the national average, said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska State Epidemiologist.
“We have a lot of work to do to catch up with the rest of the nation,” he said.
Although the number of coronavirus cases in Alaska has been declining since early spring, the drop in vaccination rates during the summer could mean an increase in cases in the fall. There will be more COVID-19 activity during the colder months, McLaughlin suspects, but the number of people vaccinated in the state will likely help determine the extent of the virus’s spread.
Six months after the vaccine’s launch, vaccination rates have varied dramatically across Alaska. Some of the least vaccinated areas happen to be some of the most populated and connected areas in the state, where vaccines are available at restaurants, fairs, and just about all the major grocery chains. Meanwhile, some of the state’s most remote and hard-to-reach areas have some of the highest vaccination rates.
For example, 84% of eligible residents in the eastern district of Aleutians – who dominate areas of the state – have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Areas like Skagway, Bristol Bay and the Nome Census Area also have some of the highest vaccination rates.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Southeast Fairbanks census area has a vaccination rate of 31%, followed by the North Slope with 35% and the Borough of Mat-Su with 37%. The Municipality of Anchorage, the Borough of Fairbanks North Star and the Borough of the Kenai Peninsula are also in the lower third.
Much of the success in many rural Alaskan communities can be attributed to the strong tribal health presence in these places, where primary care providers and public health nurses have strong relationships with their patients and the communities they serve.
In communities with lower immunization coverage, the slowdown cannot entirely be attributed to reluctance to immunize, McLaughlin said. On the contrary, he said, many young and healthy people are busy and probably haven’t taken the time to take a photo.
Six months ago, heads of state expected to receive far fewer doses of vaccines, Alaskan Chief Medical Officer Dr Anne Zink said, and being able to vaccinate people as young as 12 years old is a another unexpected development which stimulated the vaccination effort. Goals have changed and health officials are striving to increase demand for vaccines.
State officials said this week that they hope that over time more Alaskans will choose to be vaccinated, and they highlighted how the vaccines appeared to work: As of January 1, 98% of COVID hospitalizations have been among unvaccinated people.
“The vast majority of people who have been vaccinated do not get sick,” added Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist in the state health department.
“I think that speaks to the effectiveness of vaccines,” she said.