During the COVID-19 pandemic, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink has emerged as something of an epidemiological rock star. Combining health advice and knowledge with compassion, Zink became a fixture in press conferences last spring. Last Thursday on a visit to Homer with Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum, Zink got the celebrity treatment.
At a meet-and-greet Thursday morning at the Homer Public Health Office, Zink posed for selfies with nurses, city officials, hospital staff and visitors. On Thursday afternoon she visited a pop-up vaccination clinic at the Homer Boathouse on the Spit. Nurses who have been giving shots ended their day with Zink in a group photo. One woman cried when she met Zink and got a hug.
When asked why she came to Homer, Zink had a simple answer: because people in the Homer community asked her.
“They said, ‘Would you come? and I said ‘sure,’” Zink said in an interview last Thursday with the Homer News at the pop-up clinic on the Spit. “…We’re here to support communities in whatever way we can, whatever that looks like.”
Lorne Carroll, team leader for Homer’s Public Health office, said the biggest thing about Zink’s visit is “all our efforts combined together to get folks the best information possible, for them to make the decisions they want to regarding the (COVID-19) vaccine. … What it really comes down to is folks getting vaccinated is the No. 1, no question about it, the best way to prevent infection and also disease.”
In the recovery phase of the pandemic as more Alaskans and visitors get vaccinated, positive case numbers drop and hospitalizations and deaths decrease, Zink and other public health nurses have been touring Alaska to boost vaccination numbers. She went to Sand Point to vaccinate crews on seafood processing and fishing vessels. At Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s request to do more vaccinations along the Alaska-Canada border, Zink went to Stewart, British Columbia, and Hyder, Alaska, to vaccinate people on both sides of the border.
“I think we’re trying to reach out to anyone who’s interested in getting vaccinated,” Zink said. “It’s a choice. People have really great questions. We want to make sure their questions get answered. We also want to make sure people have easy access.”
Those visits also have coincided with Alaska’s “Sleeves Up for Summer” program to encourage people working in seasonal industries like fishing and tourism to get vaccinated before the summer rush.
“We wanted people to get fully vaccinated before all the tourists start coming up. We need business. We need the economy,” Zink said. “Those things go together. It’s not health or the economy. They’re together.”
For people visiting Alaska, Zink offered some simple safety advice when traveling here.
“I highly recommend that they get fully vaccinated before coming up,” she said. “It’s going to be the safest thing for themselves before they get on the plane and for Alaskans.”
Homer’s pop-up clinic also debuted a new incentive program. Anyone who got a vaccine that day received $40 in Homer Bucks, a local currency that can be used at participating area businesses. People previously vaccinated also could enter a weekly drawing for gift certificates for things like water taxi rides. Zink said health officials had talked about a statewide incentive program, but instead gave grants on a regional basis.
“In talking to communities, they wanted it to be local,” she said. “They wanted local businesses to be supported. They wanted it to be culturally relevant. They wanted to help make the decisions.”
As an emergency room doctor, Zink also has been seeing the effects of COVID-19 up front. Some of them have been unvaccinated.
“I see people in the emergency department who say, ‘I was going to get around to it,’ and now they’re sick and getting hospitalized,” Zink said.
That’s why even small victories like people getting vaccinated at a pop-up clinic give her hope. At last Thursday’s Spit clinic, 35 people got vaccinated in a four-hour period.
“It’s been a steady line here of people just walking up and getting vaccinated,” Zink said at the pop-up clinic. “… Each person, oh, that’s one less person I might have to see in the ER. My team is like, ‘Oh, we only got 30 people today.’ That’s 30 people. You don’t understand. That’s amazing.”
Now that the mass vaccination clinics have passed and the state and cities have moved to walk-in clinics and pop-up vaccination efforts, Zink said it’s like there are different seasons for the vaccine.
“This is really a season of meeting people where they’re at, making sure their questions are answered,” she said.
That new phase of vaccination means talking to the vaccine hesitant or reluctant.
“I think it means asking why they’re hesitant, what they’re concerned about,” Zink said. “… I’m really surprised at the people who say, ‘It’s the needle size, like I’m really bad at getting an IV.’ I say, ‘It’s a much smaller needle than an IV. It’s a much tinier one. I bet ya I can do it without your noticing.’”
Zink said she hears a lot of misinformation that she tries to answer by listening to people’s concerns and hesitations.
“I would tell you I have not attended a Zoom or Echo (online information meeting) about vaccine hesitancy where I haven’t got a message in a chat box on the side saying, ‘I wasn’t going to but now I am.’ It happens. It’s 1% of the time,” she said. “… If it takes a one-on-one conversation, I’m happy to do it.”
When asked how we will know when the pandemic has ended, Zink said that while there might be metrics like low case loads and hospitalizations, “Ultimately what they are is, they are personal metrics. And I think they’re personal decisions you have to make.”
For her family with children, that means they won’t be eating at an indoors restaurant until everyone is fully vaccinated. For other decisions like whether or not to continue wearing face masks if fully vaccinated, that’s also a personal decision. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month advised that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear face masks indoors and outdoors. Zink said that even though she’s fully vaccinated, she will wear a mask to support her father who’s undergoing chemotherapy.
“So I am wearing a mask when I go into the store because I would hate to pick up something and give it to him,” she said. “Though he’s fully vaccinated, I know his immune system is lower.”
In time, COVID-19 could become like the seasonal flu “in the sense it’s a personal choice, and you have a choice to protect yourself and others,” Zink said. “It’s also about thinking what’s happening in your community, so when those cases go up and then finding ways to protect yourself and your community.”
Just as health workers learned from the AIDS epidemic that glove wearing should become routine, so it will be with face masks.
“I think I will look back at pictures of us in the ED (emergency department) not wearing masks, and say ‘How is that possible. Don’t they know anything about respiratory illnesses and how these are spread?’”
Zink urged Alaskans to keep one thing in mind as they move through recovering from the pandemic.
“The more that we can just … really stay focused on that the virus is the enemy, not each other,” she said. “We all usually have the same desire of the health and well-being of our community, of each other. The more we can emphasize what we have together and not how we’re apart, we can find ways to pull together.”