The first shipment of 975 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived Tuesday afternoon in Juneau on board an Alaska Airlines flight at Juneau International Airport.
Conveyed to Bartlett Regional Hospital by UPS, the vaccine was immediately put into active distribution, said Bartlett Regional Hospital infection preventionist Charlee Gribbon in an email. Gribbon was the first person in Juneau to receive the vaccine, said hospital spokesperson Katie Bausler in an interview. The hospital will begin vaccinations by focusing on the members of the hospital most at risk.
“We are prioritizing front line patient care staff,” Gribbon said. “A vaccine being administered to BRH employees makes the whole community safer.”
Other organizations receiving vaccinations include Capital City Fire/Rescue, long-term care facilities in Juneau, and others, said Chris Sperry, a pharmacist at BRH. Other facilities, including places like Lemon Creek Correctional Center, are high on the priority list for receiving vaccinations, following Alaska’s tiered distribution plan. Gribbon said she expects all BRH staff to be vaccinated by mid-January.
Sperry was among the first to receive the vaccine, saying he felt fine. Sperry was one of several pharmacy technicians who help prepare the vaccine, which needs to be kept colder than -70 degrees.
“Phase 1 is just, generally speaking, health care workers,” said Robert Barr, Juneau’s emergency operations center planning chief, during a news conference Tuesday, describing the frontline workers who would be first to receive the vaccine. “It’s a really long list. There’s a lot of groups and organizations on those lists.”
Phase 2 is much larger, and will be more of the general public, Barr said, including everyone over the age of 65, people over 55 with underlying conditions, and some essential workers. Distribution of vaccine to Phase 2 targets could begin as soon as mid-January or as late as March, Barr said — it’s unclear at this time.
“Public health and CBJ is working to prioritize staff and get people in line,” Gribbon said. “Most people will be able to get it at pharmacies or at special PODs (points of delivery) once they know its’ their turn. So, people will be notified, and then given instructions on how, when and where to get it.”
Many of the doses that arrived today will be held or administered at BRH, but many will continue their journey, using Juneau as a jumping-off point for smaller communities, Barr said, terming BRH a “mini-depot.”
While the delivery of vaccines is a hopeful development, city and state officials cautioned mitigation measures remain crucial to lowering case numbers.
“I would say it’s going to be a balancing point,” said EOC head Mila Cosgrove during the meeting, equating the mitigation measures to a dial moving back and forth, rather than a switch, easily fixed by a silver bullet like the vaccine. “For some months to come yet, it’s going to be important that the community take COVID transmission very seriously.”
The message was echoed by Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, in a Tuesday evening news conference, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy also spoke to the continued importance of wearing face coverings in public, regularly washing hands and practicing social distancing.
CBJ City Manager Rorie Watt said the arrival of vaccines is a hopeful sign, but only if Juneau residents continue to abide by the guidelines and do the work. Those who receive the vaccine should still practice mitigation strategies such as mask-wearing and distancing, Watt said.
“It would be really sad to have the community let it’s guard down at this point in time,” Watt said.