Pharmacists Trish White and Katelyn Ylitalo oversee a vaccination clinic at the Sitka Firehall. The combination of state-supplied vaccine through Sitka’s local pharmacies, plus vaccines allocated to SEARHC via the Indian Health Service, has allowed almost one-third of residents to receive an initial shot by the end of January 2021. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

After a bumpy start, the relatively rapid rollout of vaccinations in Sitka is as hopeful as it is noteworthy — but it won’t necessarily mean a return to normal, at least not for a while.

Public health officials say that the recipe for finally beating the coronavirus  has two ingredients: immunization, and continued mitigation.

“Have you got your shots?” is the new “Hello” in Sitka. As of the end of January, over 2,600 residents had received at least their first vaccination. That’s almost a third of the town.

There are two clinics running whenever vaccine is available — one managed by the local Harry Race Pharmacy, and the other by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, which also is distributing vaccine to surrounding villages. The online registration system works well for the computer literate, and healthcare workers are making a lot of calls to reach everyone else.

The startup was rough, but both clinics are apparently models of efficiency now.

Sitka assembly member Thor Christianson, who works for the Southeast Region EMS Council, said Sitka had caught the eye of the federal vaccine development program first dubbed “Operation Warp Speed,” and that we might be getting a site visit.

“They’re coming here to see how is Sitka doing it so much better,” he said, “and the answer, I think, is that we’re throwing everything at it.”

With vaccinations going well, the question on many minds is whether this means Sitkans can put away their masks and get together again — and the answer is no.

Here’s a voice that’s becoming familiar again, as a new administration in Washington DC confronts the pandemic.

“We should not say that vaccines are a substitution for public health measures — it’s a compliment to public health measures.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and now the chief medical adviser to President Biden. He gave this interview back in December, 2020, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Wearing a mask, physical distancing, avoiding crowds — that should all stay as we get into the vaccine program,” said Fauci. “Because there’s still a lot of virus out there.”

Fauci explained that both vaccines available in the US did an extraordinarily good job preventing people from becoming sick or severely ill from COVID-19. So you can be infected, but not sick. What’s not known yet is if the immune response triggered by the vaccine diminishes the virus itself, making you less likely to infect others.

And a lot of people aren’t getting the vaccine — especially children, who aren’t eligible. Dr. Joe McLaughlin is the head of the state Section of Epidemiology in Alaska. He says that the state’s vaccination program for older residents and essential workers is going to have a significant impact on mortality from COVID-19, but “It doesn’t mean that the virus is going to slow down in the younger age groups necessarily,” he said. “And so we need to make sure that we remain vigilant, until we reach somewhere near that herd immunity threshold, so that the viral transmission naturally starts to die down.”

McLaughlin spoke at a press conference with Alaskan media on January 28. He said that the herd immunity threshold was about 75-percent. That’s when masks can come off.

Dr. Fauci believes that goal is achievable — nationwide — sometime this year.

“Let’s say we get 75-percent, 80-percent of the population vaccinated,” said Fauci. “If we do that, and do it efficiently enough over the second quarter of 2021, by the time we get to the end of the summer, i.e. the third quarter, we may actually have enough herd immunity protecting our society, that as we get to the end of 2021, we could approach very much some degree of normality, that is close to where we were before.”

And if far fewer Americans choose to get vaccinated than the 75-80 percent? Fauci said it would take much longer until the level of virus in society was so low that it did not “present a threat to anyone.”