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Vaccine delivery in Alaska persisting through harsh terrain, resistance from community

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Posted at 4:14 PM, Dec 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-30 11:17:47-05

FAIRBANKS, Ak. — When vaccines rolled out across the country, getting shots to families in rural communities took extra time and coordination.

In Alaska, pharmacists have had to fly small planes and use sled dogs to deliver thousands of doses.

We visited Alaskan pharmacist Dan Nelson in Fairbanks months ago as vaccines first rolled out across the country.

He works for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a group representing Alaska Native and American Indian tribes across Alaska’s interior. He said the initial vaccine rollout was very successful and made an impact on the lives of thousands.

“While we are not able to completely eliminate COVID or prevent COVID from happening out in rural areas, we were able to prevent a lot of hospitalizations and unnecessary deaths,” said Nelson. “So, I think that's something that we're probably most proud of here.”

However, he said, his community is still facing many challenges in controlling the virus.

“We really got hit hard by delta,” said Nelson. “Our rate of death from COVID for Alaska Natives is basically double the non-Native population. It was absolutely a scary time and not fun. I think with the omicron variant, I think that honestly, there's some complacency in the community, and I think that's something that we're needing to deal with.”

Just months ago, there was a very high demand for the shots. Today, that demand has decreased dramatically.

“All the vaccine hesitancy, and just I don't even think that captures the attitude, the outright resistance and kind of misinformation and stuff is absolutely a struggle that…it's not unique to Alaska,” said Nelson.

Nelson said the vaccine resistance across Alaska pushed his hospital to a breaking point: for a time, they ran out of antibody treatments.

“We often saw people that refuse to get vaccinated, but that was the first thing that they went to. Once they got COVID, it was, ‘I want the monoclonal,’ so that was kind of a disheartening setup because it was, really, we could have done an ounce of prevention rather than a pound of cure.”

He said he has been thankful that those hardest to reach have been more eager to get the shots.

“In most of our rural areas, it's over 70% vaccinated. Our numbers are quite a bit lower for the booster doses. The fact that I can go out to those villages now and just really be able to give people a hug and not worry about it, and then embrace them, and vice versa, I think, is just such a rewarding experience.”

When vaccines first became available, there was much excitement throughout the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the communities they serve. Yet, Nelson said he struggles to maintain hopefulness as 2021 ends and 2022 begins.

“I'll just be totally honest with you. I have not felt that way over the entire last year,” said Nelson. “I do think that overall, it's a positive outlook, and I think that we're looking at the upswing. I'd just like to hopefully get back to a place where people trust and believe their pharmacists and their doctors and nurses. Winning that war will be the most important thing and getting the upper hand against the virus.”