State and local health officials are urging eligible Alaskans to sign up for their COVID-19 vaccination as hundreds of appointments remain open across the state.
“We need your help,” Heidi Hedberg, director of the state’s Division of Public Health, said Saturday during an impromptu video conference with members of the media.
Heather Harris, who is the director of the Anchorage Health District, said there were more than 1,600 appointments available in the month of February in the Anchorage municipality alone.
Bud Sexton with the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management voiced similar concerns last Friday, saying at the time that there were over 280 appointments open for one upcoming clinic on the Kenai Peninsula.
Sexton said that there are two websites that provide information on vaccine eligibility and distribution.
The first — covidvax.alaska.gov — allows Alaskans to determine their eligibility, schedule an appointment and view frequently asked questions about the vaccine.
The second — myhealth.alaska.gov — Sexton recommended because it lists several of the upcoming vaccination clinics on the peninsula, and people can see how many appointments are currently available for each and sign up for the clinic of their choice right from the website.
For example, a search for “Soldotna” on myhealth.alaska.gov last week showed five upcoming clinics in the Soldotna area. The clinic hosted by Soldotna Professional Pharmacy on Feb. 6 showed only three available appointments as of Saturday afternoon, but another clinic scheduled for Feb. 13 has 206 open appointment slots.
During Saturday’s video conference, state health officials said that a number of factors were affecting the large number of open appointments. The vaccine is currently available to front-line health care workers and residents over the age of 65, and older Alaskans have reported difficulties navigating the state’s website in order to schedule an appointment. Both the state and the Kenai Peninsula Borough has established vaccination hotlines that people can call for assistance in setting up their appointments.
The state’s hotline can be reached at 907-646-3322. The borough’s hotline is 907-262-4636 for the central peninsula, 907-235-4636 for the Homer area and 907-224-4636 for the Seward area. The borough’s hotlines are operated from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.
Harris said that in Anchorage, not only are seniors not signing up fast enough, but there have been hundreds of people who have scheduled a vaccination who are not yet eligible according to the state’s criteria. The system allows anyone to register, but officials administering the vaccine are required to confirm the eligibility of all appointments.
Those people who are currently ineligible have had their appointments canceled, and Harris said that she hopes the cancellations don’t deter those same people from scheduling their vaccinations when they do become eligible.
In response to the problem of seniors having difficulties scheduling their vaccinations, Hedberg issued a challenge to younger Alaskans.
“Find two seniors that you know that are eligible for the vaccine, and help them sign up,” Hedberg said. “We know that they’re the most vulnerable to this disease, and so we want to make sure they’re protected as quickly as possible.”
When asked if it would make more sense to expand the eligibility criteria rather than continuing to have unfilled appointments, Hedberg said that was a question that state health officials were wrestling with on a regular basis.
“January’s appointments went like hotcakes,” Hedberg said. “Now that things are going slower, we’re trying to determine if it’s a matter of reluctance or lack of access.”
The state has designated February as “Senior Month” and hopes to get every eligible senior in Alaska vaccinated by the end of the month, Hedberg said. After that, if areas start to report “saturation” — where the number of available vaccines exceeds the number of eligible recipients — the state will begin offering the vaccine to the next tier.
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at firstname.lastname@example.org.