A panel of state and local experts answered questions and encouraged COVID-19 vaccinations during a moderated online discussion Wednesday evening. Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, encouraged all eligible Alaskans to get vaccinated as soon as possible to end the pandemic. Here, department of Veterans Affairs nurse Regina McComber applies a bandage to David Summers’ arm on the morning of March 13, 2021. Summers was among the veterans who were vaccinated at a VA clinic in Juneau. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)

An ounce of prevention through a shot in the arm

Experts gather to talk COVID vaccines, answer local questions.

Alaska’s top doctor praised the City and Borough of Juneau’s “impressive” pandemic response, encouraged residents to get vaccinated and asked for support to help hesitant residents conquer vaccine fears, during a moderated panel of state and local COVID-19 experts Wednesday evening.

The City and Borough of Juneau hosted the forum to help residents learn more about the vaccines that are now available to all Alaskans who are at least 16 years old.

Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, joined the discussion virtually from her home office and shared high praise for the work Juneau has done to contain the virus and facilitate vaccine distribution.

“Kudos to Juneau,” said Zink in an introductory presentation. “Our team is often like ‘Juneau has it figured out.’ Your infection rates are pretty impressive from this end. I’m impressed by your community.”

Juneau’s current 14-day rolling infection rate is 0.28%.

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“You are one of the first communities to have a low alert level. It’s hard for COVID to spread if it’s not around,” Zink said. “It’s humbling how quickly it can take off in a community and really go from 0 to 60,” she said.

Even with Juneau’s low infection rate, Zink said vaccines are the key to ending the pandemic and returning to everyday life.

“We want to welcome tourists and people and make sure that people don’t get really sick at the same time. You guys are leading the charge in getting people vaccinated,” she said.

Zink acknowledged that while COVID-19 is becoming a preventable disease, some people are nervous about getting the vaccine.

“There are lots of scary things out there. When you read what’s on the internet, it’s scary,” Zink said, adding she’s heard concerns ranging from long-term vaccine side effects to efficacy worries and fears that authorities have added tracking microchips to each vaccine.

However, Zink said vaccines are among the safest tools available in medicine because they are studied so rigorously. She noted that preventing COVID-19 infections through vaccination is much safer than rolling the dice with an illness.

“Getting the virus is like a choose your own adventure,” she said. “You don’t know what will happen.”

She said the vaccine contains a small amount of the virus and that significant adverse reaction is rare worldwide. She also noted that most vaccine reactions happen in the first two months after vaccination, so she does not expect long-term side effects.

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“We don’t treat viruses well with treatment. We do it by prevention,” said Dr. Bob Urata, a Juneau-based physician who was a member of the expert panel.

Zink compared getting the vaccine to other health and safety measures.

“I won’t tell you to hit a tree because I can take out your spleen. I’d tell you not to hit the tree in the first place,” she said, adding that as a clinician, she finds it exceptionally difficult to treat patients who are suffering from preventable diseases.

“COVID-19 is becoming a preventable disease,” she said.

Getting vaccinated

In Juneau, vaccines are available at Centennial Hall, through large-scale city-run clinics, which vaccinate hundreds of people at a time. Vaccines are also available at local pharmacies and from other providers, such as the military or Indian Health Services.

“The clinic at Centennial Hall is a well-oiled machine,” said Urata, who has provided vaccines at the clinic.

“There are six to eight vaccinators. You will be directed to an empty chair to answer a few questions. It’s a small volume vaccine and a very tiny needle, only about an inch long. It’s very quick. It’s less than a second. People seem surprised by how quickly it occurs with minimal pain,” he said.

Mila Cosgrove, deputy city manager and the emergency operations center incident commander, said clinics are upbeat affairs complete with occasional musical performances.

After the vaccine, volunteers direct people to a waiting area for 15 to 30 minutes to monitor adverse reactions. He said paramedics are on hand to deal with any medical issues.

“We have tents where you can lie down to get the vaccine if you faint with a needle,” he said.

Cosgrove said the city is happy to work directly with any residents who have special needs or need assistance accessing Centennial Hall.

Appointments are required. Registration can be done online through https://juneau.org/covid-19vaccine-information.

Scott Watts, the pharmacist at Ron’s Apothecary Shoppe, said that a pharmacy vaccine setting might be more comfortable for people who feel overwhelmed by the city’s more extensive operation.

“It’s appointment-based at the pharmacy,” Watts said. “The pharmacy is a miniature version of Centennial Hall. It’s been a great experience. People come in with their arms bare and ready to go.”

To sign up for a pharmacy-based appointment, visit https://myhealth.alaska.gov/.

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy

Panel experts said that conversations and understanding are the keys to overcoming vaccine hesitancy.

She encouraged people with vaccine concerns to talk with a healthcare provider and visit the state’s vaccine website to learn more.

“We want people to feel confident about the decisions they are making,” Zink said.

Charlee Gribbon, who heads up infection control efforts at Bartlett Regional Hospital, said that it normalizes the vaccination process when people share their decision to get vaccinated.

Gribbon and Zink both suggested calling friends and family members who are on the fence about vaccination to hear their concerns and validate them.

“It’s often the interaction with a loved one that helps people feel more comfortable,” Zink said.

Zink said the vaccine does not include a tracking device — only salt, sugar, saline and a small amount of virus RNA.

“If you don’t want to be tracked, don’t have a cell phone. But get the vaccine,” Zink said.

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Q & A session

During the second half of the forum, panel members answered a variety of questions from residents. Here’s a sampling:

When will we reach herd immunity?

There are several ways to look at herd immunity, Zink said.

“When my family is vaccinated, that’s my little herd,” she said. “When my workplace is vaccinated, I can do more.”

She said that the vaccination level to achieve herd immunity in the general population is probably 65-85% of people vaccinated.

“Think of it as a fire and kindling. If you have so few pieces of kindling, the fire can’t move. The same is true for COVID,” Zink said. “We need to get all our adults vaccinated. It’s all these nesting dolls. Every person is an important part of that.”

How many people in Juneau have had a severe reaction to the vaccine? How many have had to be transported to larger medical facilities for treatment?

The panel agreed that severe reactions are rare.

“Though Juneau is on the map for having the first allergic reaction, I do not know of anyone with a recent vaccine who has been transported out of town,” said Gribbon. “We do not see adverse events in a large number of people.”

What are the side effects?

According to Watts, most reactions are minor and short-term.

“There’s a little pain and swelling in the arm. Sometimes fever, chills, sore joints, muscle pain. It’s more on the second dose,” Watts said. “Older people see fewer side effects. The younger population sees it more. But, side effects are minor compared to the risk of getting the disease.”

Does the vaccine work on the variants?

Zink said that all three vaccines are consistently effective in preventing severe illness and death.

“We think they all work really well against some variants,” she said.

She said that efficacy numbers vary because manufacturers tested the different vaccines in different places and various time frames. She added that if a vaccine’s efficacy is reduced to 65% against a variant, that’s significantly better than zero. She said large-scale vaccination is the key to stopping variants.

“We have to slow down the virus to stop those variants, so there are fewer chances for it to replicate,” Zink said.

Contact Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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