A registered nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at the pop-up clinic on the Spit on May 27. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)

A registered nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at the pop-up clinic on the Spit on May 27. (Photo by Sarah Knapp/Homer News)

Zink: We’ve reached a really hard point in the pandemic

The virus has mutated into a more transmissible strain while health care capacity is dwindling and the public is exhausted with mitigation efforts.

Alaskans are at an inflection point in the pandemic, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during a briefing on Thursday.

“We have collectively been able to really minimize the impact of the virus,” she said. “But we have a new and more challenging foe, and it’s going to take every Alaskan waking up every day and making a decision about what they’re going to do.”

Zink said the state is at a really hard point of the pandemic now, since the virus has mutated into a more transmissible strain while health care capacity is dwindling and the public is exhausted with mitigation efforts.

“Sometimes I feel like social distancing and these things that we ask each other to do is kind of like holding your breath,” Zink said. “And you can only do it for so long.”

However, she said, in comparing this summer to last, Alaskans have so many more tools to fight the infection.

“We have more testing. We have (personal protective equipment). We have masking. We have a much better understanding of it,” Zink said. “And then the biggest thing is we have vaccines.”

Officials with the state Department of Health and Social Services continue to urge all eligible Alaskans to get their shots. According to a graphic Zink posted on Twitter last week, research shows fully vaccinated people are about eight times less likely to get COVID-19 and around 25 times less likely to be hospitalized or die from the disease.

The shots approved for use in the U.S. are safe and efficacious, according to officials at the DHSS.

Dr. Coleman Cutchins, a clinical pharmacist with the state, said vaccine technology research has been happening for longer than most people might know.

“The drug approval process that we have here in the U.S.,” he said, “is the safest process in the world.”

Cutchins said the two pillars of drug-approval with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration are safety and efficacy.

Since the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are approved for emergency use, they are no longer experimental or investigational.

“The emergency use authorization process doesn’t skip any of those steps,” Cutchins said about the safety checkpoints. “They’re no longer considered investigational once they get the UA or when they get fully approved.”

Cutchins said he thinks the double-dose Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are perhaps the most misinterpreted by the general public.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) by itself is a natural bodily molecule that’s used for genetic coding in everyone, every day.

According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein — called a “spike protein” — that triggers an immune response inside the body.

Specifically, the cell displays the spike protein on the surface. Once the immune system recognizes it doesn’t belong there, it responds by creating antibodies, which protect a person from getting infected if the virus enters the body. The mRNA shots cycle out of the body within just about two or three days.

Viral vector vaccines, like the Janssen, use a modified version of a different virus to create a spike protein of the strain that causes COVID-19. This then triggers a similar immune response to the mRNA shots.

Many other types of vaccines use a weakened or inactivated germ to create some type of immunity.

The mRNA vaccines, according to Cutchins, have been the technology of the future for decades.

“Actually back around 1989, 1990 is when the concept of these mRNA vaccines were first developed,” he said.

Cutchins said the hardest part about studying mRNA technology in the 1990s and early 2000s was being able to keep the molecules stable enough to make it from the lab to the patient.

Although mRNA vaccines were still being studied, Cutchins said there was significant development around 2011 and 2012, and that the first time they were studied in humans was almost seven years ago in 2015.

Additionally, the vaccine for SARS-CoV-1, another coronavirus, was developed between 2000 and 2004.

“At this point in the game, these vaccines have been studied probably closer and under more rigor than any vaccine we’ve ever had in history,” Cutchins said. “So overall, when we look at drug classes, vaccines are the safest class of drugs that we give to large numbers of people every year.”

Health officials overwhelmingly agree that vaccination against COVID-19 is the single best way to protect Alaska’s communities from the dangers of the pandemic while keeping businesses and schools open safely.

As of Thursday, 53.1% of Alaskans ages 12 and older were fully vaccinated against the virus. In the 65-and-up population, the vaccination rate was 72.1%

On the Kenai Peninsula, around 45% of people 12 and up were fully vaccinated, and 64.7% of those 65 and older had received all their doses.

The DHSS reported another 406 positive resident COVID cases on Thursday, which included 36 on the peninsula.

There are a total of 129 COVID-related hospitalizations statewide, with eight people on ventilators.

In the Gulf Coast, which includes the Kenai Peninsula, 18.4% of all hospitalizations were COVID-related as of Thursday. Only three adult intensive care unit beds in the region remained unoccupied.

The CDC now recommends all people, despite vaccination status, wear masks indoors in areas of high transmission. The Kenai Peninsula Borough is classified as high risk, with a seven-day average of 373.3 positive COVID cases per 100,000 people.

Getting a COVID vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.

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

Many different businesses on the central peninsula, including pharmacies in Walmart and Walgreens, offer vaccines.

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.

Vaccination appointments can also be scheduled through the online portal PrepMod, which 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.

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.

COVID testing locations

Officials encourage anyone with symptoms to test for COVID-19, despite vaccination status.

In Kenai, testing is available at the Chignik Lagoon Clinic, Odyssey Family Practice, Kenai Public Health Center, Capstone Clinic and Central Peninsula Urgent Care.

In Soldotna, testing is available at the Central Peninsula Hospital, Peninsula Community Health Center, Urgent Care of Soldotna, Walgreens and Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.

In Seward, testing is available at Providence Medical Center, Chugachmiut-North Star Health Clinic, Glacier Family Medicine, Seward Community Health Center and the Safeway pharmacy.

In Homer, testing is available at South Peninsula Hospital, or through other area health care providers at Seldovia Village Tribe Health and Wellness, Kachemak Medical Group and Homer Medical Center.

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

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