Coronavirus Q&A: How many of Alaska's cases involve people who are vaccinated? When can Alaskans expect booster shots?

·6 min read

Sep. 19—A highly contagious variant is now responsible for a surge in cases and hospitalizations over the last few months nationwide — especially in Alaska.

We're continuing to address reader questions about what we know about the latest surge, when Alaskans can expect to access booster shots, and how local health officials are responding. What do you want to know about COVID-19 in Alaska? Let us know in the form at the bottom of this story.

What do we know about the percentage of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Alaska involving people who are vaccinated?

The most common COVID-related questions from Daily News readers in recent weeks ask about the percentage of new virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths involving people who are vaccinated vs. those involving people who aren't vaccinated, and why the Daily News doesn't report that information in daily virus updates.

The simple answer is that the vaccination status of people who test positive for COVID-19 isn't readily available when Alaska reports its data. While the state does provide monthly breakdowns of vaccine breakthrough cases and hospitalizations, health officials say that because of the way that data gets reported to the state, there's no easy way for them to share that out more detailed information on a daily basis.

'It would be amazing if there was, like, just this database where when we got a positive case, it had all the information, like if they were vaccinated or not," Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska's chief medical officer, said during a recent call.

In reality, "it takes a lot of work by our data team to be able to figure out, was it a vaccine breakthrough, and what that looks like," she said.

Zink advised Alaskans to instead pay attention to longer-term data trends on vaccine breakthroughs, which do get reported monthly. Data over time also generally tells a more accurate story, she said.

In this case, it continues to show that the vast majority of Alaska's cases, hospitalizations and deaths have involved people who aren't vaccinated.

Between January and the first week of September, 81% of Alaska's cases, 88% of all virus-related hospitalizations and 87% of deaths have involved people who were not fully vaccinated.

When can Alaskans expect booster shots?

Alaska health officials said earlier this week that they were preparing to begin rolling out booster shots of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they receive a go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration. That approval could come as early as this week.

On Friday, a CDC committee that advises the FDA voted to recommend third shots of Pfizer's vaccine, administered at least six months after the second shot, for adults who are 65 and older; are at a high risk for severe illness from the virus; or are at a high risk of exposure because of their jobs, such as health care workers and emergency responders.

The advisory panel also voted Friday not to approve third doses for all Americans 16 and older, after a long debate among members about whether the Pfizer's data justified an extra shot when the vaccines still appeared highly effective against severe illness, hospitalizations and death — even after many months.

Following that vote, the FDA will likely make a final decision sometime this week. That means that older and higher-risk Alaskans will likely be able to access a booster shot, soon, though that's still a bit up in the air and no timeline has been set.

"As a state, we have a booster response team, and are mobilizing many workgroups across the state and with our partners to get ready for boosters, and planning around different scenarios depending on what is authorized ultimately by the CDC," said Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, a physician with Alaska's health department, during a call this week.

"We will continue to update on boosters, and kind of the details surrounding that," she said.

Some immunocompromised Alaskans are already eligible for a third dose of Pfizer's vaccine as part of their recommended series — those third shots are considered separate from booster shots, and do not require proof of eligibility.

How do Alaska doctors address vaccine fertility concerns?

The Daily News spoke to two Anchorage doctors who specialize in women's reproductive health about how they've been responding to patients' concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines. These doctors said that a little less than half of their pregnant patients and those hoping to get pregnant are unvaccinated.

"We really take every opportunity every visit to really encourage them to think about getting vaccinated," said Dr. Dana Espindola, a doctor at the Anchorage Women's Clinic.

"It does not seem probable, plausible or remotely reasonable that the vaccine could affect your fertility," said Dr. Allison Gibbs, also an OB/GYN with the Anchorage Women's Clinic. "All the information that we have shows that it is safe, that it doesn't affect fertility, it doesn't affect ovulation, and it does not increase your risk for miscarriage," she said.

Pregnant people are, however, at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, the CDC has said.

"We don't have any concerns with the vaccine causing any problems during pregnancy, but we do have concerns with COVID-19 causing problems during pregnancy," Espindola added.

Both doctors said they have had unvaccinated patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19 while pregnant. Both also said they've had pregnant patients with COVID-19 who had to deliver their babies early because the baby was not doing well, and other pregnant COVID patients who had pneumonia and required oxygen.

They said 100% of their patients who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 weren't vaccinated.

What do we know about the few vaccinated people who are being hospitalized with COVID-19?

Nationally, unvaccinated people are about 17 times more likely to get hospitalized than vaccinated people. And once hospitalized, vaccines tend to protect people from more severe effects.

Still, no vaccine is 100% effective, and a small minority of Alaska's COVID-19 hospitalizations have involved people who were vaccinated and later got very sick anyway.

In recent call, Zink said unvaccinated COVID-19 patients in Alaska hospitals are far younger than those who are vaccinated, and exhibit fewer underlying health conditions yet get seriously ill from the virus.

At one Anchorage hospital, the median unvaccinated age was 44 while for vaccinated patients it was 66, Zink said. Younger, unvaccinated people sickened with COVID-19 are also waiting longer to seek hospital care.

"So it's really becoming this tale of two worlds," she said.

In one week in late August, 26 out of 136 COVID-positive people hospitalized in Alaska were vaccinated, according to the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

Of 33 COVID-19 patients in the ICU, five were vaccinated. Out of 18 on ventilators, one was vaccinated.

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