The first part was easy.
There has been broad agreement across Alaska and the rest of the United States that health care workers should be very first in line to get a vaccine for COVID-19.
This was expressed in Phase 1a of Alaska’s distribution plan, which covered all sorts of health care workers, plus residents in long-term care facilities. As of Tuesday morning, 13,271 Alaskans had gotten the first of two shots.
Early estimates from health leaders suggested there were about 25,000 people covered in Phase 1a. Tier three in Phase 1a — which includes workers like home health aides, laboratory technicians and others who might come in contact with the virus — will start getting shots on Jan. 4.
But the planning process is looking further down the road to Phase 1b, and decisions are getting more difficult. This is where vaccine access will expand beyond the health care field, and numerous groups are jostling for a place in line.
The Alaska Vaccine Allocation Advisory Committee held a public hearing on Monday to collect input on who should be allowed in the next phase, which will likely start getting vaccinated in February.
“I just wish we had vaccine for everyone,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said at the virtual meeting.
“We will continue to work through what is essentially an impossible task to try to figure out how to do this as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
The committee got 347 written comments, and 52 people registered to speak. Among them were teachers, fishermen, veterinarians, counselors, airline pilots, court clerks, search and rescue volunteers, gas technicians and, as one commenter put it, the “old geezer group” of older adults.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults over 75 and essential workers like teachers, grocery store workers, police officers and firefighters be a part of Phase 1b.
However, states can adjust what qualifies as an essential worker, and plenty of industries plead their case.
“Aviation in Alaska is the ‘highway in the sky.’ From patient travel to infrastructure development, grocery and medication delivery to the actual transport of the vaccine … That’s all done by airlines,” said Lee Ryan of rural airline Ryan Air.
“So to maximize the benefit and feasibility of the vaccine distribution while preserving societal function, please consider the addition of those serving in the aviation field in Phase 1b.”
Others pushed for the expansion of the age range, and doing away with deciding who was an essential worker at all.
“Your job should be to protect those who face the greatest medical dangers from COVID, not to determine who are essential workers, which is a hopeless political task and quagmire,” said Cynthia Pickering Christianson, who was pushing for adults over 65 to be included in Phase 1b.
“This committee should vaccinate our oldest Alaskans first and go year by year until everyone who wants it is vaccinated.”
The seafood sector called in early and often to the public comments. At least 10 representatives of the industry, including spokespeople for Trident Seafoods and OBI Seafoods, called for vaccinating workers in processing plants and on fishing boats.
“Eleven of the 12 OBI and Icicle plants are located off the road system and lack the support of significant medical infrastructure,” said Julianne Curry, who spoke for both OBI and Icicle on the call.
“Some of our facilities are heavily reliant on local Alaskan workforce, which increases our risk of virus transmission within our facilities. … A high priority for local, resident seafood processing workers would help greatly reduce our risk with a large resident workforce such as Kodiak.”
Teachers were well represented too.
“We have already seen, nationwide and worldwide, the vast ripple effect of school closures,” said Andrew West, a teacher in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.
“However, loss of learning does not trump loss of life. We need them to return safely, so vaccines will definitely be important for this endeavor.”
Elizabeth Medicine Crow of the First Alaskans Institute asked for consideration for Native elders who are among the last to speak their languages and preserve their cultures.
Monte Hawver of Kodiak’s Brother Francis Shelter called to advocate for workers at homeless shelters. Laura Norton-Cruz called for child care workers to get the jab.
“I know this is a difficult decision … and I don’t envy you in your job,” Debbie Emery with Alaska Addiction Resource Services said to the listening officials, after making the case that rehab centers should be considered essential.
The committee met on Monday, and the guidance should be released today, according to the schedule discussed at the public comment period.
Public comment for Phase 1c will be held on Jan. 11.