With vaccine around the corner, officials caution we’re still very far away from normal

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

The photos of the first non-trial patients getting the coronavirus vaccine and the news of Alaska’s own preparations for the arrival of its first doses of the vaccines marked a new phase on the pandemic as the end comes into sight.

But as hopeful and as optimistic as everything feels right now, Alaska’s health officials are cautioning that the initial arrival of the vaccine isn’t going to change day-to-day life for the average Alaskan and that it will be well into 2021 before things start to look different.

Dr. Anne Zink, the Alaska Chief Medical Officer who has been the state’s leading official in responding to the virus and communicating to the public, likened the development and deployment of the vaccine to a monumental undertaking. She cautioned that it’s not likely to make a significant different for the average Alaskan and that measures like social distancing, mask-wearing and limiting gatherings will be critically important until the vaccine is widely available.

“We can see the runway up ahead it’s going to be a lot of work in the next few months, but I think the spring and summer are going to feel like very different places,” she said. “Not because of any rules or regulations but because we’re not going to be having as many people sick and infected with covid-19.”

Alaska officials said on Monday that between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines they expect to receive 53,000 doses before the end of the year and will begin the first phase of inoculations as early as next week with the vaccine going to front-line health care worker, long-term care facility residents and staff, some emergency responders, community health aides and individuals performing the vaccinations.

At a legislative hearing on Monday to discuss the vaccine rollout, Zink said it will take several times that number to achieve the kind of immunity needed to community spread of the virus: About 60% to 70% of the population need immunity to slow the chances of widespread transmission of the virus.

As for the difference between immunities gained naturally from getting sick with the virus and the immunity derived from vaccinations, Zink said that the vaccination is believed to be more “robust” in terms of preventing serious infections.

While Monday’s hearing had a fair bit of second-guessing and doubting of a response to the pandemic at all, Zink stressed that a monumental effort has gone into the development and deployment of the vaccine.

“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.”

Zink also highlighted the state’s efforts to ensure vaccines are delivered throughout the state in a fair, science-driven and equitable manner. She noted that instead of taking weekly deliveries of the vaccine, Alaska will be taking them in monthly allotments to handle the challenges of distributing a virus throughout the state.

The state is working with the Alaska Tribal Health System to distribute the vaccine to everyone living in rural Alaska regardless of their tribal affiliations. According to a report by Alaska Public Media, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. has a plan to use an ultra-cold freezer borrowed from the University of Alaska to store the vaccines so they can administer it with nurses travelling on chartered flights.

“They come out to the runway, we inject them, and then we take off and go to the next place and do the same thing all over again,” said Jim Sweeney, YKHC’s incident commander, told the outlet.

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