As flu season fast approaches, public health officials have expressed concerns about further stress placed on hospital capacity. And this week, federal health officials told states to prepare for a COVID-19 vaccine to be available as early as November, raising questions about who will be able to get the vaccine and when.
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If all goes well, Alaskans could see a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as November, state and federal officials said this week. Initially, only small amounts of the vaccine will likely be available, and will be distributed in three phases.
While some public health officials have expressed concern about a rushed timeline, Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief epidemiologist, said during a briefing Wednesday that the development of a vaccine for COVID-19 is building on a large body of existing science and data, and that “just because there’s a certain timeline doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe.”
Part of the reason for the relatively speedy timeline is also the great deal of resources, initiative and brainpower that has gone into developing a vaccine, she said.
The vaccine also doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect at preventing 100% of infections, she added: It just has to be safe and effective.
“Many of our vaccines help to minimize the risk of death and hospitalization, and even that alone has a tremendous impact of the number of people who die of a disease,” she said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released documents last week that described how states should prepare for two coronavirus vaccines. Both vaccines have undergone extensive testing and are in currently in the final rounds of testing, according to the documents.
While the current trials are still determining whether the vaccines are safe and effective, neither vaccine caused serious side effects in their first human studies, and both spurred the creation of antibodies that could attack the coronavirus.
According to the CDC planning documents, the first group eligible to get the vaccines will include health care workers, essential workers (includes food service workers, teachers, librarians and others who interact with the public on a regular basis), and workers and residents of long-term care facilities like nursing homes.
Phase two will be reserved for those the CDC has classified as high risk for severe illness from the virus, which includes adults 65 years and older and those with certain preexisting health conditions.
During the final phase, which most likely won’t begin until well into the new year, most other Alaskans would be able to get vaccinated. Two groups that have not yet been included in any of the clinical trials are children and youths (anyone below the age of 18) and pregnant women, which means the initial doses of vaccine that are scheduled to come out in November will not be available to them.
Of course, this timeline is based on the assumption that the final clinical trials go well, Alaska state officials said on a call Wednesday.
The state of Alaska is not currently considering mandating that people receive COVID-19 vaccinations once they are available, said Dr. Zink.
She added that her public health team would not get prioritized for the first phase of vaccinations unless they were directly caring for patients.
“State employees don’t have some special access to vaccines,” she said.
The state has been gearing up for the coming flu season: Alaska has bought enough of the flu vaccine to immunize up to 55% of the population for free, though small administrative costs may be included. When the private-sector supply is factored in, up to two-thirds of Alaskans can get and should get covered this year, health officials say.
Both influenza and COVID-19 are life-threatening respiratory illnesses with overlapping symptoms. Nine people in Alaska died from influenza in 2019, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services. Hospitals are not required to report the number of patients hospitalized with the flu, but hospital capacity in Alaska has been affected during flu season in the past.
The CDC has said that the timing of when you get the flu shot matters because of “waning immunity,” meaning that antibodies to influenza slowly decline in your body months after receiving a flu shot.
Later in September through the end of October is the ideal time to get your shot so that it lasts the duration of flu season in Alaska, state health officials have said. No matter when you get it, adults should only get one shot per year.
Only children ranging from 6 months old through 8 years old who have never gotten a flu shot before will need two doses.
“I get the flu vaccine every year, and see how it saves lives,” Zink said. “I plan to do the same with a COVID vaccine based on the data I see so far.”
Private-sector doses of the vaccine are already available in pharmacies around the state, and are available for free with insurance.
Because the state has so much of the vaccine this year, all adults in Alaska can get a free vaccine even without insurance through a provider that offers state-supplied vaccines.
You can visit the state health department’s website to find a public health center near you that’s distributing the flu vaccine.
If you have no symptoms, that test ideally should happen within seven to 14 days after exposure. But if you do have symptoms, you should get tested right away, per state guidelines.
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