Two men wearing masks carrying a box of COVID 19 vaccines out of a plane

COVID-19 vaccinations continue to roll-out across the Norton Sound region ahead of schedule, compared to the statewide plan. The regional health consortium reports that 1,512 people have received their first doses of the vaccine as of Monday morning.

On Monday, state leaders told providers they could start vaccinations on Elders over 65 next week. In Nome, vaccinations have already been underway for those Elders and a number of other essential workers. That includes teachers, corrections officers, grocery store workers, postal workers, and customer-facing airline staff. Norton Sound Health Corporation’s (NSHC) Medical Director Dr. Mark Peterson urged residents to get the vaccine.

“If you’re in a category where you can get vaccinated, please get signed up now and get vaccinated.”

– Dr. Mark Peterson

Peterson said NSHC has vaccine allocations from the state and Indian Health Services.  

“So we’re able to follow the [state] guidelines but also move faster than that at our own pace.”

– Dr. Mark Peterson

The vaccine allotments from IHS are able to be used at the recommendation of the tribes, explained NSHC Public Relations Manager Reba Lean. She says initial vaccinations have gone out to each of the region’s 15 communities for healthcare workers and Elders over 65 and older. NSHC has been using commercial Bering Air flights to get the Moderna vaccine and trained staff out to those communities.

Estimated population data from the U.S. Census shows that the Nome-census area, the region covered by the Norton Sound Health Corporation, has a relatively small elderly population with about 10% of the region being over the age of 65.

Despite a robust initial vaccine rollout, Dr. Peterson said Western Alaska is still very far from the 70% or more that need to be vaccinated for herd immunity. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, making those that have received the first dose only partially protected. It’s easy to get “cabin fever” Peterson says. Even though the vaccine is rolling out, people need to continue sticking to their social bubbles with their immediate households and continue social distancing with masks when outside of that group.

“We’re all tired of this pandemic, the vaccine is finally here, we’re feeling better about it. But we’re not there yet. I just want to remind people, we’re not there yet, people have not yet had their two doses of vaccine.”

– Dr. Mark Peterson

Peterson implored locals to stick to their social bubbles with their immediate households and continue social distancing with masks when outside of that group.

On a community phone call earlier this week, he shared he’s heard rumors about bingo halls and other gatherings resuming in some villages. Dr. Peterson said that’s worrisome and that it’s too early for such behavior. 

“I would just feel badly if we had some big outbreaks so close, so close to the end of this pandemic. And if a bunch of elders got sick and died, it would just– it would be terrible. So if we can all hang in there and and keep our bubbles small; it’s that same small bubble, just your family members. That should be your group until everybody gets vaccinated twice.”

– Dr. Mark Peterson

Most patients in Nome are receiving the Pfizer vaccine which requires two doses administered 21 days apart. After the two doses, it’s estimated to be about 95% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19. The first doses of that vaccine were administered in Nome on December 16th to Elders and staff at Quyanna Care Center. Those individuals will be eligible for their second dose of the vaccine this week.

Hospital officials told KNOM in an email that all patient facing employees, including traveling nurses and other contractors, have been offered a chance to take the vaccine and that they are now opening it to all employees. Megan Mackiernan works as the NSHC Privacy Director and declined to offer a number for how many employees have been vaccinated thus far. She wrote via email, “when employees receive the vaccine, they are patients, it is kept in their personal medical record. We don’t mark in someone’s medical record if they are an employee or not.”

Meanwhile, the number of positive COVID-19 cases has significantly dropped in the Norton Sound region since a mid-November outbreak in Nome. On Monday, there were 5 reported active cases in the region. Two of those cases are in Brevig Mission, the first cases in weeks to be active in a regional village. 

The Norton Sound Health Corporation has reported a total of 288 COVID-19 cases for the region, including residents and non-residents. They have not reported any COVID-19 related deaths.

Image at Top: The COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine arriving in Nome. Photo by Sophia DeSalvo, KNOM (December, 2020).

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