Tracy Silta (left) administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to Melissa Linton during a vaccine clinic at Soldotna Prep School on Friday, Feb. 26 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Tracy Silta (left) administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to Melissa Linton during a vaccine clinic at Soldotna Prep School on Friday, Feb. 26 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Local officials look forward to easier vaccine process

A large number of available appointments was likely due to confusion about who was eligible, according to administrators.

After state officials announced that Alaska would become the first state in the nation to offer COVID-19 vaccines to anyone over the age of 16, local vaccine administrators said their jobs are going to become a lot easier.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management Emergency Manager Dan Nelson said Wednesday that allowing anyone over the age of 16 to be vaccinated will make appointments much more accessible for people on the peninsula. In the past, Nelson said, people have been confused about whether or not they qualify under the guidelines for a specific tier.

“This makes it much easier and much more accessible for those people to choose to get a vaccine,” Nelson said Wednesday.

Nelson said OEM plans to continue coordinating large-scale clinics until they see vaccine demand plateau, which he said they think will be once about 50% to 55% of the peninsula has been vaccinated. As of Wednesday, he said, about 26% of the peninsula had been vaccinated.

OEM has helped coordinate the central peninsula’s largest COVID-19 vaccine clinic to date, which will take place on Saturday at Soldotna Prep School. At that clinic, Nelson said, they plan to administer 840 COVID-19 vaccine doses, including ones from Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine will be offered during appointments scheduled between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. The Moderna vaccine will be offered during appointments scheduled between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be offered during appointments scheduled between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

On Monday, there were more than 400 appointments still available for the March 13 clinic. Wednesday, the day after the state announced it had opened eligibility to all adults, that number had dropped to 170. Nelson said a large number of available appointments was likely due to confusion about who was eligible, but also due to the size of Saturday’s clinic and because initial demand on the peninsula had been met.

“We have many more vaccines than we did, say, in January, right? So there’s a lot more availability,” Nelson said. “It’s not quite the hot concert ticket kind of thing that we received at the beginning of all this. … I think there’s a lot of people that still want it.

“It’s just not that huge rush that we saw in the beginning.”

Soldotna Professional Pharmacy owner Justin Ruffridge, who has partnered with OEM to offer many of the central peninsula’s large vaccine clinics, said Wednesday that opening up vaccines to everyone who wants one is going to make vaccine providers’ jobs administratively easier. As opposed to having to check whether or not people being vaccinated qualify under an open tier, all they have to do is check someone’s age.

“I think it puts providers in sort of an odd situation of having to ask a lot of questions sometimes just to ensure that you are giving them to the right people,” Justin said. “Now, your only question is: ‘are you over 18?’ for two of the vaccines and: are you over 16? for the other two.”

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine can be administered to people 16 and older, while Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s can be administered to people 18 and older.

In addition to making it easier for vaccines to be administered, Ruffridge said, opening up vaccines to everyone over the age of 16 will allow efforts to shift from prioritizing efficiency to prioritizing convenience.

“Sure, we can do large-scale clinics, but now how do we start reaching people that may not be able to come to these clinics?” Ruffridge said. “Can we do things after hours? Can we go mobile? I mean, it starts to give us the capacity to start planning and brainstorming other ways to get vaccines out.”

As of Wednesday, more than 174,000 Alaskans had received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine and more than 122,000 had already received both. The state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitoring Dashboard said that as of Wednesday, 11,907 of 47,102 borough residents 16 and older — about 25.3% — had received at least one dose. About 54.1% of people 65 or older in the Kenai Peninsula Borough had received at least one dose as of Wednesday.

The state’s announcement came days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidance for people who are fully vaccinated. People who are fully vaccinated, they said, can visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing. They can also visit with low-risk unvaccinated people from a single household indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing. They can also refrain from quarantining and testing following a known exposure if asymptomatic.

How to get vaccinated

More than 575,000 individual doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been allocated to Alaska since last December. That number includes allocations for Indian Health Services (IHS) and to pharmacies participating in the CDC’s Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 vaccination, to which 10,480 pairs of vaccine had been allocated as of Wednesday.

Through that program, Alaska’s pharmacy partners are Walmart Inc., Albertsons Companies, Inc. and Walgreens, meaning they receive vaccine allocations in addition to the state’s allocation. Through that program, the Kenai Walmart is able to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to people eligible to receive it. Appointments at Walmart can be scheduled at walmart.com/covidvaccine.

People who would like assistance with scheduling an appointment to be vaccinated can call the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management call center. The center operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. The central peninsula call center can be reached at 907-262-4636. The Homer call center can be reached at 907-235-4636. The Seward call center can be reached at 907-224-4636.

A map of vaccine providers can be found on DHSS’ COVID-19 vaccine website at covidvax.alaska.gov. Many providers are using the state’s program to schedule appointments, which can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov. Instructions on how to schedule an appointment with a provider that does not use the state’s scheduling system can be found on the provider map by clicking on the icon of the provider through which people would like to schedule an appointment. Appointments at Walmart can be scheduled at walmart.com/covidvaccine.

The City of Kenai is offering transportation to and from vaccine clinics located in Kenai in partnership with CARTS and Alaska Cab. Rides will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis until the budgeted funds run out. In order to participate in the program, people must be going from an address located in Kenai to a clinic in Kenai and will need to provide proof of vaccination.

COVID-19 testing locations on the Kenai Peninsula

On the central peninsula, testing is available at Capstone Family Clinic, K-Beach Medical, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Central Peninsula Urgent Care, Peninsula Community Health Services, Urgent Care of Soldotna, the Kenai Public Health Center and Odyssey Family Practice. Call Kenai Public Health at 907-335-3400 for information on testing criteria for each location.

In Homer, testing is available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily at the lower level of South Peninsula Hospital’s Specialty Clinic as well as through SVT Health & Wellness clinics in Homer, Seldovia and Anchor Point. Call ahead at the hospital at 907-235-0235 and at the SVT clinics at 907-226-2228. Testing is also available at Homer Public Health Center daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In Ninilchik, NTC Community Clinic is providing testing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The testing is only for those traveling, symptomatic, needing testing for medical procedures, or with a known exposure after seven days. Only 20 tests will be offered per day. To make an appointment to be tested at the NTC Community Clinic, call 907-567-3970.

In Seward, testing is available at Providence Seward, Seward Community Health Center, Glacier Family Medicine and North Star Health Clinic.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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