Mar. 13—The race to a post-pandemic return to "normal" has begun, and Alaska has a valuable head start. It's been a year of laying low to minimize serious sickness and deaths from COVID-19, a goal Alaskans did well at despite the social, psychological and economic tolls that accompanied the pandemic. Now, with three vaccines approved and more in final trials, Alaska and the U.S. are entering the endgame of the pandemic — a race to vaccinate residents before variants of the disease chip away at our gains. We can't declare victory until we've stopped the spread, but we're in a position to do so before any other state.
In an address on the first anniversary of the declaration of the pandemic March 11, President Joe Biden set out the goal of making vaccines available to all U.S. adults by May 1. Some states will achieve that mark easily; for others, it will require serious effort at scaling up vaccinations and streamlining distribution.
But here in Alaska, that goal is already a reality, thanks to herculean efforts by state health officials, Alaska Native health services and military vaccine administrators, as well as a small army of nurses, contact tracers, vaccine hotline operators and other helpers. And we need to press our advantage so we can get our state back on its feet again.
Achieving widespread immunity from COVID-19 by early summer would bring huge benefits. It would give Alaskans the peace of mind to once again return to public spaces, businesses, bars and restaurants. Concerts and sizable in-person gatherings — from neighborhood cookouts to baseball games at Mulcahy Stadium — would be safe again. Alaskans, ready to celebrate the pandemic's end with friends and family, would give their neighbors the economic boost needed to avoid another economically hobbled summer.
But the benefits wouldn't stop there. Residents of other states, wanting to travel but faced with uncertainty and restrictions on traveling outside the U.S., would likely see Alaska as a safe but exciting destination for their first post-pandemic summer vacation. Airlines, eager to put the red ink of COVID-19 behind them, would be happy to add whatever capacity is needed for trips to Alaska. If we move ahead with vaccines as quickly as possible, we have a unique opportunity to kick our economy back into gear in a matter of just a few months. In a typical — non-pandemic — summer, visitors inject hundreds of millions of dollars into our local community economies. Alaska could sorely use that boost in the months to come. It's the perfect opportunity for Alaskans to reach out to Outside friends and family members and urge them to come north for a visit this summer — we can all use the company, social opportunity and the economic activity that visitors bring.
All of these economic possibilities rest on Alaskans getting vaccinated in sufficient numbers to make it safe for both residents and visitors. Fortunately, the news on the vaccines' efficacy is nearly all very good: All of the approved vaccines are extremely effective at preventing moderate and serious cases of COVID-19. Side effects, such as fatigue and muscle aches, are minor and pass quickly. Studies are showing that so far, they also provide good protection from the variants of the disease that have emerged so far — even ones that are capable of reinfecting people who have already gotten sick once. In rural communities where the vast majority of residents have gotten their shots, once-high case counts are dropping like the temperatures on the North Slope in winter. The vaccines, put simply, are nothing short of a miracle.
But they're a miracle that requires our active participation. So if you haven't scheduled a vaccine appointment yet — and if you're 16 or older, there's no one ahead of you in line — now is the time. Go to anchoragecovidvaccine.org to find and book a vaccine appointment. If you're not handy with the internet, you can call the state's vaccine hotline at 907-646-3322. If you're already vaccinated, talk to members of your family and friends to make sure they're making plans to get protected themselves. This effort requires all of us.