The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted unanimously to extend the expiration date of their COVID-19 Disaster Emergency Declaration from March 31 to June 30 at their Tuesday meeting.
During a meeting of the Assembly Policies and Procedures Committee on Tuesday, assembly member Tyson Cox, who sponsored the legislation, said he received a call from Soldotna Professional Pharmacy expressing concern that if the declaration expired, they would not be able to host large-scale clinics without the Office of Emergency Management.
Weekend vaccination clinics have been a collaborative effort. In a clinic targeted for school district employees last week, for example, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, OEM, district nurses and volunteer nurses all contributed.
OEM Emergency Manager Dan Nelson said during testimony before the committee on Tuesday that as a legal document, the declaration is what allows them to respond to disasters.
Specifically for vaccine clinics, the declaration allows OEM to allow firefighters to assist outside of their normal service areas, among other things. Nelson said the assistance provided by groups like fire departments means vaccines are able to be distributed more quickly. That is compared to having hospitals and pharmacies obtain vaccines through their usual channels.
Through their weekend clinics, Nelson said, they are usually able to vaccinate between 300 and 400 people. Some pharmacies, in comparison, can only vaccinate between 200 and 300 people per week, if that.
“It’s important to recognize that really the important aspect of this declaration … is it allows us to continue on that plan,” Nelson said Tuesday. “It isn’t really a vehicle for anything that has to do with mandates or additional restrictions.”
Nelson also pointed out that 21% of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s adult population has already received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine in the roughly 10 weeks since the vaccines became available. Roughly 23.8% of people 16 or older in the borough have received at least one dose, according to the state’s online vaccine monitoring dashboard.
Alaska has consistently led the nation in COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ vaccine tracker estimates that about 21.8% of the state’s population has received at least one dose. That’s compared to NPR’s COVID vaccine tracker, which estimates that 15.6% of people nationwide have received at least one vaccine dose.
Nelson said their goal is to have 45% to 50% of the borough’s adult population vaccinated by late May or early June and that they expect to receive enough vaccines to meet that goal, which he said would be “a significant achievement.”
“We believe with the numbers of vaccines we are being given … we can get up to about that 50% number,” Nelson said.
Nelson said that once demand for the vaccine decreases, which they expect will happen once about 50% of the borough has been vaccinated, they will be able to turn vaccination efforts back over to places like pharmacies.
More than 30 pages of public comment were submitted prior to Tuesday’s meeting, nearly all of which was in support of the extension.
Dr. Kristin Mitchell, who works at Central Peninsula Hospital, said that she has benefited from OEM’s involvement in vaccine clinics she’s volunteered at and that they rely on the assistance OEM provides.
“I can’t imagine private or hospital-based offices being able to handle the volume of people needing vaccination without the efforts of the OEM,” Mitchell wrote. “As an internal medicine office, we are continuing to manage medical care in person and via telehealth for our entire patient panel. There are not enough hours in the day nor sufficient staff to handle a large volume of vaccinations and continue to provide medical care.”
CPH CEO Richard Davis echoed Mitchell’s appreciation for the borough’s help in responding to the COVID pandemic in his own letter of support for the extension.
“Central Peninsula Hospital is grateful for the continued support of the borough’s fully activated Emergency Operations Center (EOC) under the existing declaration,” Davis wrote. “With the assistance of the EOC Incident Command, we are able to seamlessly obtain vaccines, testing reagents, and personal protective equipment when needed.”
Nelson said the borough will also receive 500 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID vaccine, which was authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Feb. 27 and has an efficacy rate of about 66%. A clinic where that vaccine is offered, Nelson said, could open as soon as in the first half of March.