Alaska health official expects to have enough vaccines for all adults by end of May

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.

With the size of pending shipments coming into focus, Alaska officials expect to have enough vaccines for every Alaskan 16 and older by the end of May.

Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum gave the update to the Senate Finance Committee this morning during a hearing on legislation that would seek to extend the state’s powers to oversee and manage the covid-19 pandemic, including on vaccine distribution.

“One of our primary goals is to ensure that we have vaccine available for those who want to take it,” he told the committee. “There are 565,000 Alaskans (eligible for the vaccine). We anticipate that along with the April allocations and the doses we anticipate to get in the month of May that towards the end of the month of May, we will have enough doses in state for all Alaskans age 16 and over that want the shot.”

So far, 394,847 doses of the vaccine have been administered in Alaska. According to the state’s vaccine dashboard, a total of 38.6% have received at least one dose and 20.6% of Alaskans have reached full vaccination status. The state was the first to open vaccinations to everyone eligible to take the vaccine.

When asked about reaching herd immunity, a point at which enough of the population would be vaccinated to curb widespread transmission of the virus, Crum declined to say a specific number. He said the state’s efforts are focused in on encouraging people to take the vaccine. Despite some far-right legislators’ claims, there is no requirement from the state to take the vaccine.

“We’re making sure the vaccine is available and doing everything in our power to educate and have folks build towards vaccine confidence,” he said.

The vaccination rollout, however, has run into issues with disinformation and mistrust, particularly in deeply conservative areas of the state. The vaccination rate in the Mat-Su Borough is one of the lowest in the state with just 24% of the 16+ population having received at least one dose of the vaccine compared to 41% in Anchorage, 77.6% in Juneau and 52.5% in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

“I can go through and spend all day talking about why it doesn’t affect your DNA,” Dr. Tom Quimby, a Mat-Su emergency physician who’s worked on vaccine communication in the area, told Alaska Public Media last week. “But I think if people have just decided they don’t want it, they’ll just look for the next thing to throw at you — and there are a lot of people in the wings that are willing to make up all kinds of stuff.”

Some of the legislators who’ve been peddling that misinformation have also opposed efforts to extend the state’s powers to manage pandemic. Debate about just what those powers will look like is the current debate in Juneau with Gov. Mike Dunleavy and most Republicans arguing in favor of very narrow powers. House leadership has argued in favor of making broader powers available to the governor in case things get worse, and is advancing a bill that would allow the governor to enact a new disaster declaration in case things get worse.

“I would agree that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel but we’re not quite there yet,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon during a House debate on a similar bill on Monday. “I ask not only what’s the downside, but what happens if Alaska takes a turn for the worst and we’re out of session? What happens then? What’s the plan if things go south and the variants take hold in Alaska and the governor doesn’t have the authority to put public health mandates back in place?”

The Senate, helmed by Republicans, is pushing a more pared back version of the disaster extension that’s largely in line with Dunleavy’s request, setting up a potential showdown between the House and the Senate and governor. There is a looming deadline at hand, though, that would require the state to enact new measures in order to access boosted federal funding for food stamps. Crum told the committee that the state would be eligible to receive the money if it passes a bill at any point in April but acknowledged that payments to beneficiaries could be delayed or applied retroactively. The prospect of delayed food stamps raised concerns on the committee.

“Retroactivity doesn’t feed you daily,” said Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson.

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