Two COVID-19 vaccines offer hope to beleaguered health care sector

  • Anchorage Health Department registered nurse Wendy Williams draws a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccine clinic on Dec. 17. The state has received more than 60,000 doses of two different vaccines against the COVID-19 virus. (Photo/Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

Health care has been at the center of the limelight since this past March when the COVID-19 pandemic really began affecting Alaska.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy preemptively issued emergency orders meant to preserve hospital capacity in the event of case surges, shutting down elective surgeries and outside visitors.

For hospitals and health care companies, which often make the bulk of their profit on elective surgeries and outpatient procedures, that was a serious financial hit even as their staffing was slammed with new work and safety protocols.

The daily case numbers dipped a bit to 152 on Dec. 21 for the lowest daily count since October. Hospital staff also began receiving the first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. As of Dec. 20, 5,674 doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been administered, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Early news of allergic reactions from a staff member in Juneau and several others who received the vaccine raised alarms and made national news. There had been 11 documented allergic reactions in the state so far, with eight at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, two at Providence Alaska, and one at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. Two were identified as anaphylaxis, with one resulting in hospitalization for treatment.

“Safety is a top priority, and these systems are closely monitored by the CDC,” said Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. “Reporting any adverse reaction is extremely important so we can continue to ensure the safety of these vaccines. All providers are encouraged to report all adverse reactions to the VAERS system so we can continue be as transparent as possible.”

The state began receiving doses of a second approved vaccine, produced by Moderna, on Dec. 21. Between the two vaccines, the state has enough to vaccinate 61,900 people, according to an announcement sent out Dec. 22. That does not include the second doses, which have to be administered several weeks after the first doses.

While the Pfizer vaccine has presented a challenge for rural Alaskan communities because of the extremely cold storage temperatures required to transport it, the Moderna vaccine has been seen as a better option. It only has to be stored at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, a much more accessible temperature for rural communities, and can withstand being thawed for much longer, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“The Moderna vaccine will help us reach more communities, especially those that have less access to cold storage,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, the DHSS co-lead of Alaska’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. “Having both vaccines provides us more vaccine, and more flexibility.”

The vaccines may be a path to helping the state’s economy get back on track, though doses will be limited for a while and administered according to the state’s distribution plan. First on that list are front-line health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. After that comes EMS and fire service personnel, community health aides or practitioners, and health care workers providing other essential services that cannot be postponed or delivered remotely.

The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association said in a Dec. 15 statement that it was pleased long-term care home residents and staff are among the first to have access to vaccination.

“The vaccine is a lifesaving turning point in the fight against COVID-19,” the organization said in its statement. “This is what we have been waiting for and we hope to protect as many people as possible.”

Looking forward, health care is again projected to be the largest growth area for jobs in the state in total number of jobs, but primarily in the long term. Ironically, even as hospitals prepared for a surge of demand as the pandemic entered the state, the industry began to shed jobs, primarily in ambulatory surgery centers and other outpatient clinics because of mandated closures in the spring.

However, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimates that those jobs may not be gone for too long.

“Ambulatory care, which is mainly the offices of various practitioners, will take the brunt of the loss as people forego preventive care or delay procedures through 2020 and potentially longer,” the department said in an October analysis. “We don’t know how long that will last, but the industry is sure to rebound quickly once conditions improve. As a result, we project growth of 9.2 percent, or 1,947 jobs, by 2028.”

In the long term, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development projected that the health care industry would grow by about 10.3 percent between 2018 and 2028, which translates to just more than 5,000 jobs.


Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

12/23/2020 - 9:13am