A sign explaining mask policy can be seen at Safeway grocery store in Kenai, Alaska, on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

A sign explaining mask policy can be seen at Safeway grocery store in Kenai, Alaska, on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Officials: New guidance positive sign but Alaskans still at risk

CDC says fully vaccinated people can safely gather without masks.

State health officials say new federal guidance on face covering is a positive sign, but that Alaska is not yet out of the woods.

“I feel like this new guidance is encouraging,” State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said in a press briefing with the Department of Health and Social Services on Thursday.

He said the mRNA vaccines are proving to be efficacious in real-world application, but Alaska is still a high-risk state.

“Although the case counts are decreasing in Alaska, we’re still in the red,” McLaughlin said.

Alaska State Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said on Thursday that the majority of new positive COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated people.

She encourages everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its face covering guidance on Thursday. The center now says people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 may safely resume their normal pre-pandemic activities without wearing a mask.

This even includes fully vaccinated people attending more crowded indoor events, like eating at a restaurant or bar and participating in a group exercise class.

The new CDC guidance still does recommend that people follow federal, state, local and tribal regulations for facial coverings. Fully inoculated people should still wear masks on public transportation and if traveling to an area with a low vaccination rate and a high case count.

The new CDC guidance comes one day after it approved the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for emergency use in anyone over the age of 12.

Clinical Pharmacist Dr. Coleman Cutchins and Director of Public Health Heidi Hedburg said during Thursday’s press briefing that their kids already have appointments to get the Pfizer shot before the weekend.

In an attempt to increase the vaccination rate by 25% in each census area before June 1, DHSS has been planning some pop-up clinics to reach the newly eligible 12- to 15-year-old demographic as part of the “Sleeves Up For Summer” campaign.

Additionally, free vaccines will be offered at airports in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau for residents and Alaska workers potentially starting as early as May 15. Beginning on June 1, anyone traveling through the airports will have the opportunity to get a free COVID-19 vaccine.

“We really respect people’s decision to get vaccinated,” Zink said on Thursday. “In general I think it’s going well, it just takes a lot of time.”

New cases

The DHSS announced 82 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. Alaska remains at high-alert level with about 12.53 positive cases per 100,000 people.

The new case count includes eight on the Kenai Peninsula. Anchor Point had four, Seward had two and Kenai and Soldotna had one each.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough remains among six census areas in the intermediate risk division, which is categorized by having between 4.8 and 10 positive COVID cases per 100,000 people. The Borough reported an average of 8 cases on Thursday. The Southwest region has the lowest risk of all 11 census regions, with only 2.94 cases per 100,000 people.

Alaska also saw 15 new cases in Anchorage, 13 in Ketchikan, eight in Fairbanks, five in both Metlakatla and North Pole, four in both Palmer and Wasilla, three in both Healy and Tok, two in both Cordova and Nome, and one each in Craig Eagle River, Houston, Jueanu Petersburg, the Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area, Unalaska, Utqiagvik and another unknown location.

The DHSS also reported six new hospitalizations and zero new deaths, bringing the totals to 1,532 and 347 since the beginning of the outbreak. As of Thursday, there were 40 total COVID-related hospitalizations in Alaska, with two of the patients on ventilators.

Vaccination rates

Slightly over half of Alaskans 16 and older — 52.4% — had received at least one vaccine dose as of Thursday, and 46.7% were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, 44% of people 16 and up had received at least their first shot, and 40.3% of eligible peninsula residents were fully vaccinated. Almost two-thirds of the borough’s seniors — 64% — were fully vaccinated as of Thursday.

The DHSS vaccination percentage data has not yet been modified to include 12- to 15-year-olds.

Out of 11 Alaska regions, the Kenai Peninsula Borough ranks No. 9 in vaccine rollout at 40.3%, according to state data updated on Thursday. The Juneau Region leads the state with a 67.8% vaccination rate for those 16 and older.

Alaska is No. 21 in the country for percent of the population vaccinated, according to NPR on Thursday. The U.S. ranks No. 10 globally, according to CNN.

Getting vaccinated

Over 400 COVID-19 vaccination appointments were available across multiple central peninsula clinics as of Tuesday, according to PrepMod, the online portal through which appointments can be scheduled. PrepMod can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov.

These include the Kenai Public Health Center, Nikiski Fire Department and the Soldotna Professional Pharmacy at Soldotna Prep School and the Sterling Community Center.

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.

In Seward, testing is available at Providence Seward, Seward Community Health Center, Glacier Family Medicine and North Star Health Clinic. Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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