Data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services show the number and percentage of people who have already been vaccinated against COVID-19, as of Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Photo provided by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

Data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services show the number and percentage of people who have already been vaccinated against COVID-19, as of Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Photo provided by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

Health officials work on vaccine convenience as rates flatline

Moving away from mass vaccination campaigns and reaching the people who haven’t made the time to get their shots yet is the goal in the coming months.

COVID-19 vaccination rates are nearly flatlining in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and officials are developing new efforts to get shots into as many arms as possible.

This comes as the state announced its new goal to increase vaccinations by 25% this month, according to a press release from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. President Joe Biden has set a vaccination goal of 70% by July 4.

Justin Ruffridge, a pharmacist at Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, said on Tuesday that he’s not necessarily worried about the vaccination rate flatline.

“I think it’s a shift into a new phase of vaccine distribution,” he said.

On April 19, DHSS reported that 40% of Alaskans 16 and up had received at least one dose. Two weeks later, on May 3, the state saw that number rise to 50%.

From April 16 to 23, the vaccination rate among those 16 and up in the Kenai Peninsula Borough increased by 2.8%, which is less than last week’s — April 23 through 30 — rate, at 1.9%.

Moving away from mass vaccination campaigns and reaching the people who haven’t made the time to get their shots yet, Ruffridge said, is the goal in the coming months.

Public Health Nurse Tami Marsters said her team is doing the best it can to make vaccines more accessible and convenient for central peninsula dwellers.

“Everyone’s hoping that they’ll open it (vaccines) up for the kids,” Marsters said.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is expected to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration for kids 12 and older early next week, according to the Associated Press.

“It would help us to get over this sooner,” Marsters said.

Ruffridge said his goal isn’t necessarily to reach herd immunity — an unknown percentage of the population becoming immune to COVID-19 through inoculation — but rather to decrease the number of people getting sick and hospitalized, especially before the tourist season.

“You don’t want three weeks of your summer to be ruined by COVID,” he said.

Ruffridge said he understands vaccine hesitancy, but would encourage people unsure about the process to reach out to a health care provider, rather than someone with an “I hate vaccines” sign on Facebook.

“I think hesitancy … generally comes from a place of being anxious about something that’s new, and I get that,” he said.

But, Ruffridge said, since Alaska is a pretty open state, people this summer coming to vacation will likely bring the virus with them. He said if we hover around a 50% vaccination rate, that still leaves half the community susceptible to illness and the hospitals vulnerable to an overload.

“We could put ourselves in a bad situation in the prime peak of our season,” he said, pointing out that May is a good time to get vaccinated.

Marsters said vaccine hesitancy is an “age-old problem” and “nothing new,” and that people have been apprehensive with new shots coming to market for decades.

“It’s a whole lot safer now,” she said. “Everyone in public health wants to see everyone vaccinated.”

Some people, Marsters said, simply don’t believe in the efficacy of vaccines. As a professional in the realm of science, she said she would be happy to provide information to the public, or stay at the clinic late if someone needed to push their vaccine appointment back.

Marsters said she thinks the peninsula is in the slow and steady uptick of vaccination rates.

In an effort to curb the sometimes “cumbersome” process of scheduling a vaccine appointment, Ruffridge said that later this month the pharmacy is looking to host a Monday through Friday walk-in clinic in Soldotna outside of normal business hours.

Public Health has been administering vaccines during the food bank distributions at the United Methodist Church. Marsters said her team is also planning on hosting clinics at the Soldotna Wednesday Market this spring and summer.

Online vaccine appointments can be scheduled at myhealth.alaska.gov, and a map of vaccine providers can be found on the DHSS website at covidvax.alaska.gov. People seeking assistance with scheduling an appointment can call the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management at 907-262-4636. The Homer call center number is 907-235-4636 and Seward’s is 907-224-4636.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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