First shipment of new COVID-19 booster signals shift in fight against disease

With clear CDC recommendations on boosters issueds, health officials hope Alaskans will view vaccination as part of the normal preparations for winter

By: - September 10, 2022 4:00 am
A sign directs visitors on Sept. 9 to a site for COVID-19 testing at the Alaska Native Health Campus. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has already closed its walk-up test site, and the drive-through site is scheduled to be closed on Sept. 29. Demand for such testing has dropped, in part because of the availability of in-home tests. More than two years after the pandemic arrived in Alaska, the state Department of Health, ANTHC and other health organizations are gearing up for distribution of new vaccine boosters. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A sign directs visitors on Sept. 9 to a site for COVID-19 testing at the Alaska Native Health Campus. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has already closed its walk-up test site, and the drive-through site is scheduled to be closed on Sept. 29. Demand for such testing has dropped, in part because of the availability of in-home tests. More than two years after the pandemic arrived in Alaska, the state Department of Health, ANTHC and other health organizations are gearing up for distribution of new vaccine boosters. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Alaska, the fight against the disease is pivoting from testing to vaccine boosting.

Fall is here and winter is coming, and health officials are encouraging Alaskans to view vaccine boosters as part of the normal preparation for the time of year when people spend more time indoors in close quarters.

To Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, staff physician for the Alaska Division of Public Health, the idea is to “normalize” booster vaccines so that they are part of a winter preparation routine, something similar to the established routine of seasonal flu vaccines. In fact, there is an effort to convince people to get both the booster and the seasonal flu shot as winter approaches, she said.

“By getting people up to date on their boosters, we’ll be able to limit many of the severe hospitalizations and deaths that we see in the fall,” said Rabinowitz, an emergency-medicine specialist.

The state is on track to receive its first shipments of the new COVID-19 vaccine booster, which is known as “bivalent” because it’s formulated to fend off the latest iteration of the virus, the omicron variant, as well as the original strain. Over 38,000 doses were on their way, and more shipments will follow, the Alaska Department of Health said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week released its recommendations for the new booster. The new and reformulated variant, produced either by Pfizer or Moderna, is recommended for anyone 12 and older who has been vaccinated at least two months prior, including those who received one or more earlier boosters. For children 5 to 11 years old, the original booster is recommended.

A sign displayed on Sept. 9 informs visitors that there is no longer any walk-up testing for COVID-19 at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage. Sept. 19 is the scheduled last day for ANTHC's drive-through testing. Demand for such testing has dropped, in part because of the availability of in-home tests. More than two years after the pandemic arrived in Alaska, the state Department of Health, ANTHC and other health organizations are gearing up for distribution of new vaccine boosters. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
A sign displayed on Sept. 9 informs visitors that there is no longer any walk-up testing for COVID-19 at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage. Sept. 19 is the scheduled last day for ANTHC’s drive-through testing. Demand for such testing has dropped, in part because of the availability of in-home tests. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The focus on the new booster represents a subtle shift from a focus on widespread testing. There is less demand for on-site testing, thanks in part to the availability of at-home antigen test kits.

At the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, on-site testing is winding down. The walk-in testing site at the Anchorage campus has already closed, and ANTHC plans for Sept. 29 to be the last day for operations of its drive-through testing site, said spokesperson Shirley Young. For now, at-home test kits are available at the drive-through site, she said.

ANTHC was still awaiting its doses of the new bivalent COVID-19 booster and this season’s flu vaccines, Young said. Once those come, they will be available first for staffers and, if supplies allow, for patients who come to the walk-in clinic, she said.

Around Alaska, some COVID precautions remain in place, such as testing requirements for some village travel and masking requirements at many medical facilities.

Masking remains an important tool for some people, such as those with compromised immune systems or with vulnerable family members, Rabinowitz said.

COVID-19 has not disappeared, even though there is plenty of fatigue over it, she said.

A sign advises on Sept. 9 that face masks are still required at this Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium site in Anchorage, as it the case for other medical sites around the state and the nation. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
A sign advises on Sept. 9 that face masks are still required at this Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium site in Anchorage, as it the case for other medical sites around the state and the nation. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“It’s not unexpected that we’re still dealing with it,” she said.

On the positive side, much has been learned about COVID-19, pandemics and public health in general, not just by the professionals but by the general public, she said.

“There’s days that I get a bit frustrated. But then I look around and see all the great work that’s being done,” she said. “Overall, I’m very hopeful and excited about what we’ve learned from the pandemic.”

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the nation, including Alaska. In Alaska, there are have been 1,304 deaths reported as of early September, according to the Department of Health. Though Alaska’s death rate has consistently been one of the lowest in the nation, within the state Alaska Natives have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. While Alaska Natives make up 21.9% of the state’s population, they have accounted for 26% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, according to Department of Health statistics.

Nationally, Indigenous people have been hit disproportionately by the pandemic, but they have also struggled in the past two years with other serious health and safety problems, according to the CDC. A newly released report on lifespan shows that American Indians and Alaska Natives, grouped together, suffered the steepest decline in life expectancy, losing 6.6 years of life expectancy from 2019 to 2021. For the U.S. population as a whole, life expectancy dropped by 2.7 years during that period, according to the report.

For white Americans, the pandemic accounted for more than half of the decrease in life expectancy from 2020 to 2021, while the pandemic was responsible for only about a fifth of the decrease in life expectancy for American Indians and Alaska Natives, according to the report.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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