On Dec. 17, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation began COVID-19 vaccinations around the Y-K Delta and in Bethel. On Dec. 21, YKHC hosted an information session about the vaccines, and who will be next in line to receive them.
In the Y-K Delta, frontline health workers and the residents and staff at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Elder’s home were the first to receive COVID-19 vaccines. This involved chartering planes to fly doses to villages, and vaccinating health aides on vilage runways. YKHC Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges said that phase 1a of the vaccinations would be complete by Dec. 23.
“We just received this vaccine six days ago, and we have been able to vaccinate over 180 healthcare providers in 37 different villages. And it's just to me, when I think about this, is an astonishing accomplishment,” Hodges said.
With both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines coming to market in under a year, some may be concerned about safety. Dr. Larry Corey, Co-Director of the Fred Hutchinson COVID-19 Prevention Network, said that government funding helped develop and test the vaccines in such a short period of time, but he said that no corners were cut in the approval process.
“The testing mechanism of vaccines that were done was exactly like we normally do any testing vaccine,” Corey said.
Several Alaskans experienced severe allergic reactions when they received the Pfizer vaccine. Hodges said that there have been no such cases in the Y-K Delta.
“We've administered well over 500 doses with no adverse reactions,” Hodges said.
Recently, news broke of a more infectious strain of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom. Corey said that coronavirus mutations are nothing new, and that the existing vaccines would likely protect against the new strains.
“I'm pretty confident the vaccine is going to cover this just fine. And it's certainly covered the first mutational change just fine,” said Corey.
Hodges said that she expects doses of the second vaccine, manufactured by Moderna, to arrive in Bethel this week. On Dec. 16, YKHC received extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine from the Indian Health Service.
“I actually cried because of how many lives that we can save with this additional vaccine. Because of this wonderful, and what I thought was unexpected, gift, we will be moving through our tiers a little bit faster than anywhere else,” Hodges said.
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended that individuals ages 75 and older and frontline essential workers be the next groups to get the vaccine in phase 1b. They recommended that people ages 65 to 74, individuals with high-risk medical conditions, and other essential workers receive it after that in phase 1c.
Hodges said that YKHC is tweaking the CDC’s guidance to include Elders ages 65 through 74 in the same phase as Elders 75 and older.
“With the amount of effort and expense it takes to get the vaccine to the villages, it doesn't make sense for us to divide it into two different waves,” Hodges said.
She said that vaccination of Y-K Delta Elders would begin the week of Dec. 21. Then, YKHC will wait for the state Vaccine Allocation Committee’s recommendation on who falls within phase 1b’s definition of frontline essential workers. Hodges is a member of that state committee, where she has been advocating for Alaska Natives to receive priority in the state’s vaccination schedule.
“Alaska Natives bear a disproportionate burden of hospitalizations and deaths from this disease,” said Hodges. “And it's also rural areas that have been not only disproportionately affected, but have fewer resources to handle these severe outbreaks.”
She said that 10 to 15 communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, including Bethel, have widespread community transmission of the virus. In some villages, nearly 70% of residents have tested positive for COViD-19. Hodges also emphasized that young people have not been immune to severe illness.
“We have had multiple children who have been hospitalized, and several had to go to ICU-level care,” Hodges said.
She added that because of how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Y-K Delta, it is exceptionally important for every person to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.