Alaska drops eligibility requirements for COVID-19 vaccines

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FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, Rachel Kelly, left, an intensive care unit nurse, receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine from Emily Schubert, the employee health nurse at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska. Alaska has dropped restrictions on who can get a COVID-19 vaccination, opening eligibility to anyone 16 or older who lives or works in the state in a move that Gov. Mike Dunleavy said could help Alaska's pandemic-battered economy. The Republican, who highlighted his own bout with COVID-19 in making the announcement Tuesday, March 9, 2021, said Alaska is the first U.S. state to remove eligibility requirements. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

JUNEAU, Alaska – Alaska has dropped restrictions on who can get a COVID-19 vaccination, opening eligibility to anyone 16 or older who lives or works in the state in a move that Gov. Mike Dunleavy said could help Alaska's pandemic-battered economy.

The Republican, who highlighted his own bout with COVID-19 in making the announcement Tuesday, said Alaska is the first U.S. state to remove eligibility requirements. Here’s what happened.

WHAT FACTORED INT0 THE DECISION?

The lifting of restrictions was announced days after the state had vastly expanded eligibility to include those 55 to 64 and those 16 or older who are classified as essential workers, at or potentially at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, or who live in multigenerational households or communities lacking in water or sewer systems. But with open appointment slots, health officials wondered Monday if many people realized they qualified. The document outlining essential workers totaled 24 pages.

Officials also cited the volume of vaccine coming into Alaska and wanting to get as many shots into arms as possible. Alaska has a highly seasonal economy, with tourist and construction seasons looming. State chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink also said the best protection now against virus variants is vaccination.

HOW IS VACCINE DISTRIBUTED IN ALASKA?

The state health department tracks the number of doses that are allocated to the state and to the federal Indian Health Service, whose allocation is managed by the tribal health system in Alaska. Separate allocations are directed to the U.S. departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense and through federal pharmacy or health center programs, the health department says.

WHAT ROLE DO PARTNERS PLAY?

Dr. Robert Onders, administrator of the Alaska Native Medical Center, said tribal health organizations are able to decide how best to distribute their allocations, which he said allowed them to get vaccine “to willing people quickly." Tribal health organizations also have not limited access just to Alaska Natives, recognizing that with an infectious disease like COVID-19, “everyone's in it together, and you can't just protect some of the people. You have to protect as many as possible," he said. He cited as critical the role that tribal health organizations have played in the vaccine rollout, noting that in the tribal health system, those administering vaccines have established relationships within their communities, which he said has helped with outreach.

HOW HAS THE ROLLOUT GONE SO FAR?

Alaska, with a population of about 730,000 people, has led states in the percentage of its population to receive two doses of vaccine, at about 16%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker. Two available vaccines authorized for emergency use require two doses. A third, requiring one shot, is being rolled out. Two of the vaccines are allowed for those 18 or older and one for those 16 or older, the CDC says.

HOW HARD WILL IT BE TO GET A VACCINE?

New appointment slots come online routinely. But state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said Wednesday that with Dunleavy's announcement, open vaccination slots were being snatched up and he expected a period of “relative vaccine scarcity” for a while. He said seasonal workers who plan to come to Alaska and have gotten one dose of a two-dose vaccine should not plan on getting a second dose in the state. Zink said shipments could be done between states — from the state where the initial dose was obtained — but that takes significant planning, and officials emphasized people in those situations should get both doses in one state or opt for the one-dose vaccine.

ARE OTHER STATES FOLLOWING SUIT?

In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox's office announced people 18 and over will be eligible to receive a vaccine on April 1. State officials expect to have 1.5 million doses by April 10, when Utah’s statewide mask order will be lifted, said Jennifer Napier-Pearce, a Cox spokesperson. Mask orders will remain in place for schools and large gatherings.

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Associated Press/Report for America reporter Sophia Eppolito contributed from Salt Lake City.