A UPS cargo plane arrives at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage late Sunday night (12-13-20). The first immunizations were administered in area hospitals on Monday. By Wednesday, vaccine had been distributed to communities in Southeast, including Sitka. (DHSS photo/Kristal Fiser)

The first shipment of the coronavirus vaccine arrived in Anchorage overnight on Sunday (12-13-20). State officials say it’s a turning point in the fight against the pandemic.

The state’s top medical team took questions from the media during a teleconference on Monday (12-14-20).

Note: Dr. Elliot Bruhl will appear this Friday on Raven Radio’s Morning Interview at 8:15 a.m. to discuss vaccine distribution in Sitka and other communities served by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

The state Department of Health and Social Services has made its medical staff available every week to answer reporter questions, from the very beginning of the pandemic — but this Zoom meeting felt different. Although Alaska’s infection rate from coronavirus continues to climb — along with the number of deaths — there was finally something else to be positive about.

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, was clearly happy about the arrival of the vaccine.

“Honestly, it’s been an emotional day for me,” she said. “Someone described it as ‘V-Day’ — not in ‘Victory Day,’ but in ‘Vaccine Day.’ This is a big turning moment for Alaska, for our country, and for our world as a whole. I worked my last clinical shift in the emergency department last night, prior to my allocation for getting vaccine, and seeing the stress and the fear in my colleagues, seeing long-term care residents getting sick, and thinking about being at this cusp of being able to protect some of the most vulnerable with this vaccine is incredibly exciting. And being able to move some of those resources to other groups to be able to increase testing capacity. Being able to put time and effort into other areas. It’s a downstream effect, and I’m incredibly excited to be at this moment.”

Zink anticipated that the first doses would be administered at Providence Hospital and the Alaska Native Medical Center, both to frontline healthcare workers and to vulnerable populations. Alaska should have 35,000 doses on hand in Anchorage by Wednesday, but Public Health Nurse Tessa Walker Linderman did not want to share details about the distribution timeline to the rest of the state — for security reasons.

“Our number-one priority is getting vaccine out and across the state,” Linderman said. “We aren’t saying how many doses are going where, and into some of these specifics, for hospital considerations, they’re wanting to keep the integrity of their systems in place. So we’re not putting out specific information right now.”

Note: Since the broadcast of this story on December 15, vaccine has arrived in Sitka and other Southeast communities. The first doses were administered in Sitka on December 15.

Linderman did say that the state has a vaccine distribution plan — it’s used every year for the distribution of the influenza vaccine — and it was unique to Alaska, since many communities don’t receive direct shipment, and took into consideration travel by small planes, weather delays, and public health nurses, who often have the responsibility for personally carrying vaccine into a village.

Alaska received the Pfizer vaccine in this initial round. Like the other US vaccine, made by Moderna, it requires two doses a few weeks apart to be fully effective. Although both vaccines have been granted emergency authorization by the Food & Drug Administration*, the amount of information surrounding their development and clinical trials has been reassuring. Dr. Zink said that surveys within the Alaska health care community indicate that providers are on board.

*Note: As of press time, the Moderna vaccine had received the endorsement of the FDA staff. Emergency authorization is pending any time.

“You know a month ago we didn’t have a lot of data,” Zink said. “So there was a lot of vaccine hesitancy for understandable reasons. They wanted to see what the data looked like. There’s been a tremendous amount of information that’s come out in the last two weeks. And so many health care providers who I think were initially hesitant are starting to say, ‘Nope, this is 100-percent where I’m at.’” 

Zink said that watching the data and safety profiles had been impressive — and a great relief. “One of my biggest fears,” she said, “was being at this point, and having mixed data on the efficacy of the vaccine.”