When will you receive the COVID-19 vaccine?

The first fully approved COVID-19 vaccine will be shipped to Alaska for distribution perhaps as soon as the end of this year or early next year. Since it will be new, there won’t be much of it, so you will be assigned a priority. You will be vaccinated when the state of Alaska tells you it is your turn. Will you be in the top priority? The answer is a developing story with a few twists and turns.

Late in August the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerted public health officials in Alaska and across the nation to prepare to distribute a coronavirus vaccine as soon as late October. According to an article by the New York Times in early September,

“The guidance noted that health care professionals, including long-term care employees, would be among the first to receive the product, along with other essential workers and national security employees. People 65 or older, as well as Native Americans and those who are from ‘racial and ethnic minority populations’ or incarcerated — all communities known to be at greater risk of contracting the virus and experiencing severe disease — were also prioritized in the documents.”

Even before that, early last summer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and CDC, were scrambling to come up with a plan about how to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine to the American people. They gave the task to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS). NAS held their first committee meeting Aug. 21, 2020, followed by a public hearing and additional meetings into September. The final report was released early October.

The NAS recommended a system of “allocation phases,” or “priorities” to determine the order in which the vaccine would be distributed. Here’s what the NAS committee came up with:

Phase 1a: High-risk health workers and first responders (approximately 5% of the population)

Phase 1b: People with significant preexisting medical conditions (defined as having two or more); and older adults in congregate or overcrowded settings (approximately 10% of the population)

Phase 2: K-12 teachers and school staff and child care workers; critical workers in high-risk settings; people with moderate comorbid [pre-existing medical] conditions; people in homeless shelters or

group homes and staff; incarcerated/detained people and staff; and all older adults (approximately 30 to 35% of the population)

Phase 3: Young adults; children; workers in industries important to the functioning of society (approximately 40-45% of the population)

Phase 4: All other individuals residing in the United States who are interested in receiving the vaccine for personal protection.

On Oct. 16, The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) submitted Alaska’s draft “COVID-19 Vaccination Plan” to the CDC for review. The Alaska plan was prepared by the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, a partnership between DHSS and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC).

I grabbed a copy of the plan and discovered that, yes indeed, there was a section in that plan which outlined a system of priorities, but it lacked detail and was extremely vague. Seeking clarification, I landed a 15-minute interview with Dr. Tessa Walker Linderman, who has a doctorate in public health nursing and is the DHSS lead for the Alaska COVID-19 Vaccination Task Force. I asked Dr. Linderman why the section regarding the assignment of priorities in the Alaska draft vaccine distribution plan was so vague.

“We are waiting for the federal guidelines to come out from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices,” she said. “ACIP are the ones who put out those official recommendations. They said we can’t give the vaccine until those ACIP recommendations come out. So, we are definitely going to be adhering to those.

“We do have a state allocation committee that’s made up of medical providers, medical ethicists and public epidemiologists. They have met one time and basically concluded that they wanted to wait until the ACIP guidelines came out, and that there just wasn’t really a need for Alaska to come up with their own when there is going to be federal guidance that we could work with.

“That being said, we have had groups reach out to us saying that they wanted to provide feedback on their population and why they should be considered on a higher phase than someone else. We have through our ECHOs let people know who to contact. We have a liaison team that is collecting that information. And when our allocation committee does meet, we will compile all of that and provide that to them as well. So, we’ve been publicly letting people know on our ECHOs that they can provide feedback to the allocation committee via our liaisons team.”

ECHOs are Zoom/phone-in question and answer sessions presented by various Alaska COVID-19 experts. They are open to the public. Contact the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Human Development at 907-272-8270 for more information about how to attend the “COVID-19 Vaccine ECHO.” You can also find the ECHO events schedule and webinar registration online at https://bit.ly/38BLqtA.

Expect more twists and turns in this developing story.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.