Gavin Hunt, 13, receives his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the walk-in clinic at the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling Highways in Soldotna, Alaska on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)

Gavin Hunt, 13, receives his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the walk-in clinic at the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling Highways in Soldotna, Alaska on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)

Officials: Cases are down, but the pandemic isn’t quite over

Many people experience chronic conditions as a result of infection, according to state health officials.

Alaska continues to see a decrease in COVID-19 cases, but state health officials are still busy trying to predict what the rest of the pandemic will look like.

In a press briefing with members of the Alaska State Department of Health and Social Services last Thursday, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said that mental and physical health concerns are starting to become transparent in this transitional phase.

“We’ve all had very different experiences during the COVID pandemic and coming out of it we want to make sure that we are supporting each other,” she said during the briefing.

She also presented a list of post-COVID conditions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported. Some ailments experienced after infection — including mild or asymptomatic cases — include fatigue, difficulty with concentration and breathing, coughing, painful joints and muscles, chest pain, depression and anxiety, headaches, fever, palpitations, loss of smell and taste and dizziness upon standing.

Joe McLaughlin, a state epidemiologist, said that surviving COVID-19 doesn’t mean coming out unscathed: Many people experience chronic conditions as a result of infection.

“COVID isn’t over for a lot of patients after the acute phase of the illness ends,” he said.

The team also reported COVID-19 vaccinations are continuing on an upward trend, although slowly.

As of Monday, 54% of Alaskans 12 and older had received at least one dose and another 49% were fully vaccinated.

“It sometimes feels slow but it’s pretty impressive when you look at the actual numbers,” Zink said. “[There are] still a lot of people getting vaccinated, which is great.”

At one point, Alaska was consistently in the top three states nationally with the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate by population. Now, according to NPR’s COVID tracker, Alaska is No. 30 in the country.

Matthew Bobo, the state immunization program manager for the section of epidemiology, said last Thursday that this ranking is fairly consistent among other vaccinations as well.

“We see that with childhood, adolescent and adult immunizations across the board,” he said.

Bobo also said the state is planning on reviewing another survey that targets Alaskans who prefer not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, however difficult it is to conduct.

“This is a really hard population to reach so it’s really hard to get survey numbers,” he said.

The team also presented data on the COVID variants they’re detecting in the state. The majority of cases remain classified as the B.1.1.7, commonly known as the British strain, but officials have seen two reports of the Delta variant, which is said to be more transmissible and cause more serious disease.

“We’re seeing a lot of the B117s and then some of the other variants as well, so I guess I wouldn’t say there’s an overwhelming preponderance of variants,” State Epidemiologist Louisa Castrodale said last Thursday, adding that it’s “tricky” to make conclusions about the various coronavirus strains.

Health officials also spoke about the boroughs with lower vaccination rates.

In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, 42% of people 12 and up were fully vaccinated as of Monday, and another 45% had received at least one dose.

Out of 11 Alaska regions, the Kenai Peninsula Borough is roughly tied with the Fairbanks North Star Borough as the 10th least vaccinated area. Matanuska-Susitna Region has the lowest vaccination rate at 33%.

McLaughlin said he thinks a recent Fairbanks breakout caused some awareness, which may be the reason it has a low vaccination rate but is also seeing limited new cases.

“My sense is it’s partly due to the fact that when the Fairbanks North Star Borough was experiencing a high number of cases … it raised awareness and so probably some people were getting vaccinated and other people were engaging in mitigation measures,” he said.

The message from state health officials has remained consistent throughout the year: The more people choose to get vaccinated the sooner life will resemble what it did pre-pandemic.

Getting vaccinated

Multiple vaccination appointments were available as of Monday, according to PrepMod, the online portal through which appointments can be scheduled. PrepMod can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov.

These include clinics at the Kenai Public Health Center and Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.

Vaccines are also available through the Kenai Fire Department by calling 907-283-8270, every week at the Soldotna Wednesday Market and for both residents and visitors at airports in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.

Additionally, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy hosts a walk-in clinic in its strip mall storefront at the “Y” intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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 through alternative entities can be found on the map by clicking the icon of the preferred provider. Appointments at Walmart can be scheduled at walmart.com/covidvaccine.

People who would like assistance with scheduling a vaccination appointment can call the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management call center. The center operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. 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.

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. To schedule a ride, Alaska Cab can be reached at 907-283-6000 and CARTS can be reached at 907-262-8900.

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, Dena’ina Health Clinic, 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 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.

In Ninilchik, NTC Community Clinic is providing testing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon to 4 p.m. To make an appointment to be tested at the NTC Community Clinic, call 907-567-3970.

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

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