Alaskans 65 and older will be the next group eligible for early doses of the coronavirus vaccine, state health officials announced Thursday.
Once the majority of seniors who want vaccines are able to access them, next up will be prison inmates, correctional officers and residents of homeless shelters, as well as “frontline essential workers” age 50 and older — including teachers, emergency responders and seafood industry workers whose work is performed on-site and in close proximity to the public or to co-workers.
After that, according to a list released Thursday by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the next eligible group will be Alaskans between the age of 55 and 64, those who live in rural communities where there’s limited access to running water and sanitation facilities, and frontline essential workers with public-facing jobs who are between 16 and 50 and have two or more high-risk health conditions.
A fourth phase will include persons 50 and older who have two or more high-risk health conditions, and all other public-facing frontline essential workers between 16 and 50 years old.
[Read the full “Phase 1B” guidelines here.]
The state’s decision to prioritize the elderly for vaccines before many non-health-care frontline workers puts Alaska in a small group of states that have diverged from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that put frontline essential workers in the same group as those 75 and older, and before those 65 and older.
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said Thursday that Alaska officials made this prioritization decision because most of the state’s oldest residents are cared for at home instead of in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, which means that while other states have already vaccinated many in this group, Alaska has not.
“This was an attempt to try to get to that high-risk group overall,” she said.
Seniors also make up the vast majority of the state’s virus-related deaths and hospitalizations, she said.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the next phase of immunizations will start. Zink did not immediately announce a timeline, but said seniors would likely begin receiving vaccinations in late January or early February.
There are about 90,000 Alaskans who are over 65, Zink said — a relatively large group that will likely take at least all of February to get through. However, many seniors in long-term care facilities have already been vaccinated.
And many tribal health organizations have already begun vaccinating their elders, too: The state has no say over vaccine allocated by the Indian Health Service, so those officials are able to move more quickly and prioritize differently.
The state’s current plan is to work through the first group (seniors) as quickly as possible, and then move one by one through the next tiers, Zink said.
She said that it does not mean that every person 65 and older has to to be vaccinated for the next group to begin.
“As soon as tier one is starting to not fill up appointments and slow down, then tier two opens up,” she said.
The same process will follow for the additional tiers that make up Phase 1B, she said.
She said it was difficult to estimate how long it will take to move through this entire phase, but it’d probably be “a few months.”
“Phase 1B is decently large,” Zink said. “It will take a bit.”
She added that the current plan could change as needed. The state advisory committee will meet again next month to determine who will be eligible for the vaccine next, including essential workers who don’t work in close proximity with one another or the public.
The first groups in Alaska to become eligible for vaccine in December were hospital-based frontline health care workers, residents and staff at long-term care facilities, emergency personnel, community health aides and people performing vaccinations currently eligible to receive it.
Beginning Jan. 4, another tier of people in the state’s first phase will start receiving vaccines. That group includes people who work in health care settings who are at the highest risk of getting COVID-19, are considered essential to the health care system and do regular work that can’t be postponed or done remotely.
Alaska received more than 60,000 doses in December. Officials this week said they expect another 52,900 next month. So far, 13,772 people have been immunized — less than a quarter of the state’s initial allotment.
When asked why it was taking so long to get vaccine out to Alaskans, Zink said it was a matter of logistics: strict temperature restrictions for the vaccines, not knowing what the state’s numbers would be or what day the shipments would be arriving until the last minute, and having to build up a response very quickly.
“It’s taking longer than I was expecting or hoping,” she said. “Our team is working incredibly hard to overcome (those challenges).”
Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed.
[Read the state’s latest allocation plan below:]