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Even Sweeter 16: Why Age Now Qualifies Alaskans For A COVID-19 Vaccine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Alaska has made COVID-19 vaccines available to everyone in the state 16 or older. Despite Alaska's large size and decentralized population, it's been outperforming nearly every other state on getting vaccine shots in arms. We are joined now by Dr. Anne Zink of Alaska's Department of Health.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ANNE ZINK: Great, it's an honor to be here. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: So what's your secret?

ZINK: (Laughter) Partnership - it's all about partnership. We've just been really lucky to work with our tribes. We have 229 sovereign tribes, amazing communities. When we got that - them vaccine, they got it done. So it's been really great to get it out there.

SHAPIRO: And what's the response been to this widespread access now? Are you having, like, website crashes or enormous crowds at vaccination sites? How have people responded?

ZINK: No, people have responded with a lot of excitement. We've talked a lot about vaccines kind of like the sun. You know, we had a very little sun here in December, early January.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ZINK: We had very little vaccine. But it's coming in fast. And days are getting longer, and we are excited to put this pandemic behind us. So no websites crashed. We stood up our call line for extra time yesterday. There's actually still some appointments on the website, and we continue to connect people to appointments as fast as we possibly can.

SHAPIRO: Did you have any hesitation about lifting this last barrier and saying, OK, everybody in the pool over the age of 16?

ZINK: I think every time we've opened up a new group, we've said, oh, man, this is a big one. Let's see how this goes. But what we've really found is we've given our communities a heads up that we're going to do it, and so they get all their appointments ready and set to go. And so we are able to kind of announce it, and then they put more appointments up and keep putting appointments up to be able to get people vaccinated. So having people vaccinate, having vaccinators and having vaccine has been exciting.

SHAPIRO: You know, in other conservative Republican states, we've seen elected officials clashing with public health officials and sometimes undermining the message. As Alaska's chief medical officer, what has happened with elected officials in your state? Why do you think it's gone so much better?

ZINK: Yeah, I feel really fortunate along those lines. The governor has really allowed science to speak for science. And we have, you know, public science ECHOs that happen every week with the public where they can ask our entire team - epidemiologists, virologist - any question they want. We really want to make sure that data is transparent and fair. And we really decided early on in this pandemic that we didn't want politics to get in the middle, and that COVID takes advantage of the cracks between us, and so we would be better served as a state if we could work together. We don't always get along. We don't always see the same way about things, but I really think that that partnership across a wide, diverse group of people in the state has served us well and continues to serve us well.

SHAPIRO: I know you are a medical official, not a tourism official, but summer is a time when a lot of people come to Alaska from out of state. Are you anticipating that, thanks to the vaccine distribution, this might be something close to normal or will there still be severe restrictions?

ZINK: Yeah, you know, I think we are thinking a lot about the summer. That's when a lot of our economy takes place. Yeah, it's when the fish migrate and the fishing season happens. It's when people come up here and do a lot of industry work and when a lot of tourism happens. So we want to make sure our communities are protected before that happens and part of the reason we're just racing to get vaccine out as fast as we possibly can and just looking forward to opening things up as fast as we can into the summer and welcoming people to the state once we get more vaccine out.

SHAPIRO: That is Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer in Alaska.

Thanks so much for the conversation.

ZINK: Yeah, thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGGIE ROGERS SONG, "ALASKA (SOFFI TUKKER REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.