COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)

State physician briefs Kenai chamber on COVID, vaccines

More contagious variants likely to spread through communities that don’t reach herd immunity

An estimated 70% of the population will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to reach herd immunity, a state physician told the Kenai Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

If the population doesn’t reach that number, Dr. Sar Medoff said, the virus will likely continue to mutate into more contagious variants and spread.

Medoff, a physician with the Alaska State Department of Health and Social Services, said during a presentation at the chamber’s luncheon that he wanted to make sure Kenai Peninsula residents know three major points about the COVID-19 vaccines: They’re effective. They’re safe, and they not only provide immunity for individuals but also for greater communities.

“When we see getting back to the way of life close to what it looked like in 2019 … the thing that separates us from where we are today to getting to that place, that light on the horizon, it’s the vaccines,” Medoff said.

The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech MRNA vaccines are both effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, severe COVID-19 and COVID-related hospitalization, he told the chamber. The clinical trial data show the vaccines were “approaching [a] 100%” efficacy rate at preventing death due to COVID-19, Medoff said.

According to state data updated on Wednesday, nearly 40% of Alaskans across all ages — 37.8% — had received at least one vaccine dose. For those 16 and older eligible for the vaccine, 48.7% had received at least one dose. Around 41.2% of eligible Alaskans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Medoff emphasized that it’s important for people to return for their second doses, since the efficacy rate after only one is anywhere from 40% to 80%. The average efficacy rate for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines after the second dose is over 90%.

For Alaska seniors 65 years and older, 70.9% have already been fully vaccinated statewide, according to state data on Wednesday.

In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, 28.4% of people across all ages are fully vaccinated, with 35.6% of people 16 and older receiving all their doses. Additionally, 32.4% of the borough across all ages had received at least one dose as of Wednesday. Over half of peninsula seniors — 61.2% — are fully vaccinated.

Out of 11 Alaska regions, the Kenai Peninsula Borough ranks No. 9 in vaccine rollout, according to state data updated on Wednesday. The Southeast Region – Northern leads the state at a 62.9% vaccination rate for those 16 and older.

Alaska dropped to fifth in the nation for vaccine rollout at 32.4% across all ages, according to NPR on Wednesday. The state trails Maine, New Mexico, Vermont and Connecticut. An estimated 26% of the country across all ages is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Side effect concerns

Some people, however, have been concerned about rare and possibly severe vaccine side effects.

Medoff said the average severe anaphylaxis cases related to the vaccines are around two-and-a-half to five out of every 1 million doses administered. There have been no deaths due to severe allergic reactions.

Officials are also studying the adverse effects of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration put a pause on distribution last week after six severe blood clots were reported.

“Ultimately when we look at the detection of six cases out of more than 6.5 million doses of vaccine given … it really does drive home for me the confidence that I have in our safety surveillance mechanisms that we have in place,” Medoff said.

There has been some vaccine hesitancy nationwide, partly due to the fact that the vaccines were granted FDA approval in under a year. Medoff said on Wednesday that although the vaccines made it to the market quickly, no safety steps were skipped.

The medical community already had a lot of research about coronaviruses from earlier this decade, particularly from the SARS and MERS respiratory illness outbreaks originating in Asia and the Middle East, he said.

“We already had a pretty good foundation to start from when the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified in late December of 2019,” Medoff said.

Usually before a vaccine or drug gets FDA approval, Medoff said, a pharmaceutical company won’t fill out its entire production line. But in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government funded these production lines early out of caution.

“The government said ‘Hey, we know we need to invest in vaccines. We want to go ahead and give you money to build … that factory line so that if the vaccines are approved, if they are safe, we can jump straight into production,’” Medoff said.

Another way the vaccines received FDA approval quickly was the influx of participants who agreed to take part in the clinical studies.

“They were able to find 40,000 and 35,000 people, respectively for the trials, really quickly,” Medoff said. “So that was another thing that can often take months and years in a traditional vaccine development trial.”

Ongoing safety checks are also in place by the state, through the VAERS (vaccine adverse event reporting system) portal and the CDC’s text-message symptom tracker V-SAFE.

Medoff said various side effects of the vaccines show how immune systems build their defenses to COVID-19.

Another group that has experienced vaccine hesitancy early on because of their exclusion from the clinical trials has been pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Medoff said on Wednesday that since the early days of clinical trials, “many” women who were pregnant or breastfeeding, or women thinking about becoming pregnant, have gotten vaccinated.

“We actually recently had a study come out … which showed that the protective antibodies that prevent you from getting COVID-19 are actually passed from the mom to the child through breast milk, which is an additional level of protection for the infant,” Medoff said.

The vaccines are now recommended for women in these demographics by the CDC, the World Health Organization and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Medoff said there have been discussions about the need for additional booster COVID shots, but that officials are unsure of the exact frequency it will be needed. He said his estimate is that people will have to get an updated COVID vaccine annually.

Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla said earlier this month that people will likely need a third dose within a year of full inoculation.

New cases

The DHSS announced 201 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to 63,977. This is almost double the new cases reported on Tuesday.

Alaska remains at high-alert level with a statewide average daily case rate over a 14-day period at 21.82 positive per 100,000 people.

DHSS also announced five new hospitalizations and zero new deaths, bringing the statewide totals to 1,437 and 329. As of Wednesday, there were 50 total COVID-related hospitalizations in Alaska, a jump from Tuesday, with three of the patients on ventilators.

The new case count included 14 on the Kenai Peninsula. Affected peninsula communities include Kenai with seven, Soldotna with five, and one each in Homer and Seward.

Alaska also reported 58 new cases in Anchorage, 29 in Fairbanks, 25 in Wasilla, 17 in Palmer, 10 in North Pole, nine in the Kusilvak Census Area, five each in the Bethel Census Area, Chugiak, Eagle River, and Juneau, two each in Craig, Girdwood, Ketchikan, and Willow, and one each in Bethel, Delta Junction, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Kodiak, the North Slope Borough, the Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area, Utqiagvik, and Valdez. An additional case was reported in an unknown location.

Getting vaccinated

A total of eight COVID-19 vaccination appointments were available across two central peninsula clinics as of Wednesday according to PrepMod, the online portal through which appointments can be scheduled. PrepMod can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov.

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-serve 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 Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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