Alaska officials talk vaccine logistics, conspiracy theories at rollout with legislators

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, during the Senate Health and Social Services Committee hearing on Dec. 7, 2020.

Update 6:36 p.m.: This post has been updated following Sen. David Wilson’s clarification on questions from today’s hearing.

The Senate Health and Social Services Committee hearing on the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine was riddled with technical glitches making it difficult to follow online… and there were moments where it seemed like that may have been a good thing.

State officials working on the vaccine met with senators today to discuss the logistics and planning for the vaccine, which included a question session aimed at debunking vaccine conspiracy theories.

As for the vaccine itself, state officials said they anticipate the first wave of doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be delivered to Alaska as early as next week with doses the Moderna vaccine arriving by the end of the year. Because of the logistical challenges created by Alaska’s inequal health care services and its geographic size, the state will be taking doses in monthly lump allotments instead of weekly as states in the Lower 48 will do.

Both vaccines require a second dose that the state says will arrive in a second shipment.

The state will be prioritizing the vaccine in tiers with the first tier covering front-line health care workers and skilled nursing facilities. Officials said they anticipate having more than enough doses to cover the 8,000 front-line health care workers identified by hospitals as well as long-term care facility residents and staff, emergency responders and community health aides.

Though they didn’t give a precise number of doses during the presentation, officials later told reporters that they expect the first shipment of Pfizer vaccines to contain 35,100 doses and the first Moderna shipment to contain 17,900 doses.

They said they anticipate having additional doses available from the initial wave of vaccinations and said Alaska’s Vaccine Allocation Committee plans to meet later this week to determine where they’ll go.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink stressed that the creation and rollout of the vaccine at this speed has been a monumental undertaking akin to the moon landing but warned that the initial round isn’t likely to create significant day-to-day differences for the average Alaskan. That, she said, will change as the vaccines become more widely available.

“I’m describing it a lot like the sun. I think initially on the 22nd, you won’t notice a big difference from the 21st but come the spring equinox we will be getting, I think, a lot more vaccine out and when it’s summer solstice we’ll notice the world is very different and I think the world will be very different with vaccines as well,” she said. “There’s a lot of ifs to that—and making sure there’s no production challenges—but honestly, from my seat in this position, it feels like watching a man landing on the moon. … I feel like this spring and summer will feel like very different places.”

Legislator questions

Zink and other state officials fielded many questions from the committee ranging from logistical questions about the program to questions that floated conspiracy theories and others that seemed to second guess the state’s plan to make vaccines available to all front-line health care workers even if they had already contracted and recovered from covid-19.

“I have articles that actually show the vaccine while 94-95% effective but natural immunity in the people they’ve been studying is more 97-98% effective,” said Anchorage Sen. Natasha von Imhof. “I think it is too early to really determine whether one or the other is better and whether if you’ve had it, you should have it again.”

Zink replied that—as with everything related to the covid vaccines—the state is not going to mandate anyone get the vaccine. As for people who had already contracted the virus getting the vaccine, Zink said there’s a difference between a vaccine immunity and a natural immunity gained from recovering from the infection. She said the vaccine provides a more robust immunity aimed at averting severe cases of covid-19 and should cover most mutations of the virus.

The committee also fielded questions from far-right Wasilla Sen. Mike Shower, who opened his questions with a comment about how he believes “economic impacts are worse than the disease.”

“Purely from a medical view,” Shower asked, “when can we stop doing this?”

Zink replied that the goal is to stop the surge in cases and stop overwhelming state hospitals—something Shower said was “moving the goalposts”—and said the vaccine is one of several tools to achieve that goal.

She said the goal is for about 60% to 70% of the public to have immunity to the virus before things can return to relative normal.

“Our goal is to provide as much vaccine to those who want it as efficiently and as quickly as possible,” she said.

The line of questioning that stood out most came from Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson, the committee’s chair. After stating that the committee has no position on the vaccine and that it’s working to ensure the public is informed enough to make their own decisions about it, Wilson asked health officials a series questions about conspiracy theories that have been circulating on social media.

“We have heard from a couple constituents,” he asked, “who want to know if the vaccine in any way is going to alter a person’s DNA?”

Zink explained that’s not how vaccines work and that the vaccines provide your body’s immune system with what’s needed to begin developing its own antibodies to fend off the disease.

Wilson asked health officials about other claims on the virus, including the possibility that the vaccine would have fetal cells in it, that it would cause severe allergic reactions or result in infertility for those who take it. Zink said no to all, offering detailed rebuttals of each point.

“What sort of a microchip or tracking may be contained in the vaccine?” he asked.

“There is no microchip. There is no tracking. We really value privacy of individuals nor would that be part of the vaccine in general,” Zink replied. “The CDC will be offering an app so people can monitor their symptoms but that is as close as any kind of monitoring gets to any of these vaccines.”

After the meeting, Wilson said the claims were brought to him by constituents and he wanted to give an opportunity for health officials to discuss them.

“I never said that I believed them,” he said on Twitter. “Just wanted to provide clarity to Alaskans with factual information.”

Addressing disinformation was one of the themes of the meeting.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich called on the committee to help put the fear and help build confidence in the vaccine in order for the state to start working to get back to normal.

“I think all of us should take a moment and just reassure our constituencies that we’re not mandating a vaccine. What we’re trying to do is ensure take a vaccine to stay safe and to keep others safe. We’re watching the studies; we’re watching the work that’s done here and I think it’s really important to reduce the fear levels in the public that somehow big government is going to come in and mandate they do things. If we just are rational, approach this scientifically we can reduce the concerns people irrationally have expressed and have been fed by social media,” he said. “I for one will take the vaccine.”

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