This photo shows vials of COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020. Rollout to the next group of eligible recipients, Alaska residents 65 or over, has been weighted by technical issues and limited vaccine supplies. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

This photo shows vials of COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020. Rollout to the next group of eligible recipients, Alaska residents 65 or over, has been weighted by technical issues and limited vaccine supplies. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Vaccine slots filled within minutes — followed by uncertainty

While there was high demand in Juneau, the state’s vaccine website proved frustrating for many.

The City and Borough of Juneau took appointments for its Centennial Hall coronavirus clinic the weekend of Jan. 15.

But within minutes, the all of the more than 1,000 appointments were filled.

“We filled up in 25 minutes. All 1,100 appointments,” said Robert Barr, planning chief with Juneau’s emergency operations center. “We just need more vaccine. If we can get more vaccine, we can do more clinics and put a dent in demand.”

Across the state, clinics and health care providers are trying to distribute the vaccine as efficiently as possible to priority groups and seniors 65 and older. But some are frustrated by the rocky rollout.

“Today I tried to get on the Juneau website clinic. It opened at noon. I started at 12:05. Couldn’t get on, couldn’t get on,” said Jim Sepel, 75, who was trying to get an appointment for his wife. “I called the city manager’s office at 12:30 and they said it had it filled up.”

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Issues with the state’s vaccine appointment website were also rampant, said Tari O’Connor, chief of the Alaska Division of Public Health’s Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion section.

“We apologize to people for all the bumps we’ve been having, but we’re not wasting this opportunity,” O’Connor said. “We’re improving the process for the months to come.”

Sepel said that while he was able to get vaccinated through an alternate avenue, it was proving more difficult to find an appointment for his wife.

“I got my first vaccine three days ago through the VA clinic because I’m a disabled vet. But now I’m trying to get an appointment for my wife, and she’s 70,” Sepel said. “We old people, we’re terrified of getting this disease.”

While Sepel was able to get wait-listed at two local providers, it’s far from a guarantee of immunization. Sepel said that raising the cutoff age for getting the vaccine to 70 would halve the number of eligible residents in Juneau. Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, has said previously that the intent of allowing everyone 65 and older to get the vaccine is to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible, rather than having usable vaccine sitting around because the restrictions were set too tightly.

“Our goal is to get shots in arms as fast as possible,” Zink said during a news conference Monday. “Just like getting called up to the plane to board, we can’t get everyone at once.”

In Juneau, that manifested Monday in the public vaccine clinic filling rapidly and threatening the appointment website’s ability to function.

“We got slammed right at noon,” Barr said. “When it peaked, we were seeing three-second loading times, which is pretty long, but it never crashed.”

The city will be holding more clinics as it receives more vaccines and is able to immunize the groups at highest risk, Barr said. That availability isn’t known until just before its arrival, which complicates planning and administration of the vaccine, Barr said.

“I think the main issue is there’s not a lot of vaccine available, which is giving a lot of people bad experiences,” Barr said. “The main problem is that we need more vaccine. We don’t know when our next batch of vaccine will come.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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