Nearly 5,000 people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and almost a fifth of those people have also received their second dose. That makes more people in the region who have received at least one dose of the vaccine than have tested positive for the virus. Across the region, 4,248 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Jan. 20, according to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.
YKHC opened eligibility for the vaccine to the general population on Jan. 19. Dr. Ellen Hodges is Chief of Staff for YKHC. She described that first day as heartwarming and busy.
“I’m very pleased about that. Every single shot in an arm is one less person who might succumb to this terrible disease,” said Hodges.
Since late December, Hodges has flown across the region trying to get as many of these shots in as many arms as possible.
“Some people cry when you vaccinate them because they’re so relieved to start this protection against this virus,” Hodges said.
She says the words “start this protection,” because it takes five to six weeks after receiving your first dose to develop full immunity to the virus, if you also receive your second dose. The second Pfizer vaccine is given 19-23 days after the first dose. The second Moderna vaccine is given 24-28 days after the first dose. This timeframe, combined with the region’s high case rate following holiday gatherings, is why the health corporation is encouraging all Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities to remain locked down through the end of February.
“We need to maintain the vigilance that we have been maintaining. So universal masking when you’re outside your home, keeping your social circles small, frequent handwashing. All those things will likely have to be adhered to in all likelihood through the rest of the winter, spring, and probably into summer as we start to get more and more people vaccinated and as our case rates start to go down,” Hodges said.
All but three communities in the region have received COVID-19 vaccines: Lime Village, Red Devil, and Nightmute.
Everyone in the region who wants a vaccine is asked to fill out an online form on YKHC’s website. In villages, the number of people who fill out the form lets the health corporation know how many doses to fly out to each community. Anyone in a village who needs help filling out the form can call their local health clinic or tribal office. Anyone in Bethel who needs help can call YKHC’s COVID-19 hotline at 907-543-6949.
Hodges says that she personally reviews the list of people who’ve completed the form every day, and then YKHC staff calls each person to schedule an appointment.
“Right now our focus is getting as many people who want to be vaccinated as humanly possible," Hodges said. "The State of Alaska Chief Medical Officer calls that ‘shots in arms,’ fast and furious. So just getting shots in arms right now is our absolute highest focus.”
Because YKHC is focusing on people who come forward to get vaccinated, Hodges said that they are not tracking people who are declining vaccination. Even though YKHC has opened vaccines to the general population, YKHC’s vaccines are reserved for people who reside in the region and are not available for people who live elsewhere in Alaska.
In some good news, while January and February is when respiratory illnesses like influenza and RSV usually peak in the region, the health corporation is not seeing an increase of those viral infections this year. Hodges says that this is likely because of preventative measures like masking and hunkering down.
Hodges continues to encourage everyone who hasn’t already to get their flu vaccine in addition to their COVID-19 vaccine. YKHC has both vaccines available.