ICYMI: Vaccine Discussion with Senator Murkowski and Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Zink in Light of COVID-19 and Flu Season

“Just like winter, COVID, if we plan and prepare to mitigate it, we will be safer”

In case you missed it, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) held a virtual discussion with Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, last week to discuss vaccines and the important role of seasonal influenza vaccinations as Alaskans continue to face the health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. They covered everything from efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the need for preventing a bad flu season, Alaskan concerns regarding vaccines, and efforts to prepare for a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Click here for video of their entire discussion.

Dr. Zink first provided an update on current state of play of COVID-19 in Alaska and explained the importance of Alaskans working together to slow the spread, particularly as the winter flu season approaches.

“COVID fatigue is real and we are seeing that across our state and we are seeing cases rise because of it. So as we are really facing a very challenging time in our state right now we need to remember that prevention works, that masks work, that distance works, and we need to do it collectively. There’s no one magic answer. It’s a series of tools that we use in collection to really slow the spread. There’s no one policy, no one person, no one thing that’s going to make this go away. It’s going to be all Alaskans working together,” said Dr. Zink.

“The important message with us right now is to recognize that the protocols and the guidance haven’t changed,” said Senator Murkowski. “Our numbers are not where we want them to be. In fact we are going in a direction that all of us had hoped we wouldn’t see. The outbreaks that we are seeing in rural Alaska right now are quite concerning to all of us, because we recognize that we have much more limited capacity out there and you also have vulnerabilities among Alaska Native peoples that also present other challenges.”

Senator Murkowski then asked Dr. Zink what advice she’s giving to those in rural areas of Alaska versus urban areas.

Dr. Zink responded, “I think some things have to be different. If you don’t have running water and sewer it’s hard to say wash your hands in the same way. And so I think we need to recognize the challenges and limitations. If you have 15 people living in two rooms, it’s hard to say ‘stay in your own separate place.’ There are just physical limitations that are there. I think the big things that I would say is that many of our rural communities have really been able to slow the spread by quarantining before people come in and testing before people come in, but those restrictions on travel are not sufficient. They’re not alone enough. No one single thing is going to protect it. And we need to create kind of speed bumps, or potholes, in the road of COVID to slow things down.”

Senator Murkowski asked Dr. Zink to discuss why this year with the COVID-19 pandemic upon us coupled with the seasonal influenza, it’s more important than ever for Alaskans who are able, to receive a flu vaccine. Dr. Zink explained how while we work to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we also need to minimize the flu.

Dr. Zink said, “We also have really limited healthcare capacity in Alaska. And if you’ve ever had to wait in the emergency department for an admission, if you’ve ever had to be transferred to another hospital, you know what that means. You know that we have limited capacity. Just yesterday we had no ICU beds in Mat-Su and five in Anchorage, both overall. So we are full, we are really full right now. Only just about 8% are COVID related, but still we have limited capacity. The flu vaccine decreases your chance of needing ICU care by 83%. So when we talk about those beds and the needs to keep those beds open, the flu vaccine is an important tool to minimize your chance of needing hospitalization or potentially dying, for you. And it also minimizes the chance that we could spread it to others.”

“We recognize it is not 100 percent effective but what you’re sharing is that, while it might not keep you from getting the flu, how you respond to that flu virus is going to be easier for you to get through it if you had had the flu vaccine,” Murkowski responded. “This is one way that we can stop the spread of that but if you do get it, your reaction will typically be less severe, less difficult, less complicated.”

Dr. Zink stressed that while a vaccine is another tool to minimize risks, we always need to be supporting our immune system–including mental health–ensuring your immune system is strong and robust. Senator Murkowski prompted Dr. Zink to address vaccine hesitancy and explain concerns from Alaskans on whether or not the flu vaccine would make someone sick.

On the issue of child vaccinations, Murkowski cited that Alaska ranks at the bottom of the nation on percentage of those who have received their vaccinations.

Murkowski explained, “I supposed you can say that some of it is related to access, some of it is related to not being in a position to have good information about vaccines, but I’d like to hear from your perspective as we think about children’s vaccinations and the importance of children getting their vaccines, not only to protect them but to protect others, whatever the outbreak may be.”

“I can totally understand the reason for vaccine hesitancy in so many ways. And I think even just as a parent the balance that I had to remind myself, and not every parent has this advantage, is seeing kids in the emergency department struggling to breathe because of influenza, because of other vaccine preventable diseases. And having parents say to me ‘I would do anything to have protected my kid and I didn’t realize that I hadn’t protected them.’ And I never wanted to be in that situation. And until you see your child suffering and struggling, it’s miserable. And so you know, my kid is going to throw a temper tantrum if I take away that candy, but it’s going to be the right thing for them. My kid might cry when I poke them when they get their vaccine but it’s the right thing to do to protect their health and the health of the community. There’s probably no single thing that we do in medicine that has been as well studied as well as so effective as vaccines, except for maybe clean water. And so I think making sure we have clean water is a hugely important thing, but after that vaccines are probably next up there. We have been so successful at suppressing these diseases, so we don’t see them and we don’t see the risk of them. And it’s because we don’t see and feel that risk that it’s hard to see the need for prevention,” said Dr. Zink.

Senator Murkowski then turned to efforts underway for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’ve got Operation Warp Speed that’s moving forward to try to advance a vaccine quickly, but to do it safely. And again, to the issue of vaccine hesitancy, if people think that this vaccine has been too rushed, if it is not safe, there’s going to be kind of a wait and see. And if what we’re really trying to do is arrest this COVID virus, then a safe, effective vaccine is going to be important, but making sure that people take that vaccine is going to be a priority,” said Murkowski. “The vaccine and process toward a vaccine has become viewed as political. It should never be political. It should be a matter of science and research and the best and most brilliant minds coming together really designing a vaccine to save lives.”

Murkowski spoke to her efforts in Congress to make sure that through the vaccine development process there’s increased transparency, helping boost public trust to help reassure Americans when a vaccine is available, that it is safe. Murkowski then asked Dr. Zink to speak to how Alaska is preparing for a future COVID-19 vaccine.

“It has to be safe, that’s the number one thing. And then advantageous, it needs to work. And like we talk about the flu, it doesn’t have to work perfectly to be useful and that’s okay. There may be some additional steps that need to be taken in combination, but we want to make sure that it is number one safe and then number two, advantageous. It is very reassuring to see that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have completed their enrollment. They have also completed their enrollment with a diverse population, including many people who have underlying health factors for COVID, so that’s great to see. It’s really important,” said Dr. Zink. “And from the state perspective we are preparing and being ready to vaccinate and move out quickly once that vaccine is available. We’ve set up essentially almost like a department for vaccination, we have 8 subgroups and we’re doing it in parallel with ANTHC. While we know that Alaska Native population is 15 percent of our population, 50 percent of our test sights are run via some type of tribal entity. Many of our rural communities, that’s just where people get care and how people get care and the same will be true of vaccines. And so having a really close partnership there, particularly as we’re thinking about really complex distribution— ultra-cold storage, cold storage, timing, multiple vaccine, all of these challenges on the logistics end—we want to make sure the logistics isn’t the limiting factor and that we’re able to rapidly get vaccines out to those who want it.”

Related Issues: COVID-19 Resource Page, Health