ANCHORAGE, Alaska (NewsNation Now) — States across the country have faced a number of challenges when it comes to getting shots into people’s arms, but none more so than Alaska.
Small in population, but with the largest landmass in the country, state officials have had to get creative using boats, ferries and even sleds.
Now, they are leading the nation in vaccine distribution.
“Getting my second vaccine here. I’m getting back to work pretty quick,” said Anchorage resident Leo Ash.
By tapping the Alaska Native Hospital System, 42-year-old Ash will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 long before most Americans.
“I’m grateful I live in Alaska and I’m grateful for the system and I’m grateful that they’re taking their jobs seriously here. They’re doing a good job and they are getting the numbers, it’s awesome.”
Alaska’s native health system serves over 220 tribes, some hard hit early by the pandemic.
“I think the tribal health system has administered about half of the vaccines in the state of Alaska and that’s not just the tribal numbers, in many communities, that’s everyone. Because in many communities, tribal health may be the only healthcare in that community,” said Dr. Robert Onders, administrator of Alaska Native Medical Center.
Getting vaccines to remote regions has led to some epic stories.
Determined health care workers have fanned out to all tentacles of this vast state, traveling by boat, sleds, and prop planes… whatever it takes to get shots into arms.
“To me, it’s inspiring to see Alaska leading the country, even in a very challenging situation,” Onders said.
Because of significant vaccination progress, Alaska has already expanded eligibility to much more of the general population.
That includes all teachers and support staff and anyone over 50 with serious medical conditions.
“So no matter what metrics you look at, Alaska’s doing pretty good. Probably better than most states,” said Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
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Gov. Dunleavy ended Alaska’s state of emergency as of this week.
“There’s no spiking the ball. The thing with the pandemic is there’s no definitive end, per se, but emergency, it is over. The emergency. We look forward now to the recovery period,” he said.
Because Alaska has a population of just 730,000, it is easier to vaccinate more residents per capita.
Another advantage is that the federal government is treating Alaska like a territory, so it’s getting monthly vaccine allocations — that alleviate the weekly suspense hampering other states.
And there’s an established vaccine program within the tribal health system.
“We had the advantage of using that same process that we already had in place to get vaccines out there. Harder with the ultra cold vaccines. But once everyone knew how to handle it, they just figured out how to do it,” said Onders.
With the lifting of the State of Emergency, proof of a negative COVID-19 test is no longer required to travel into Alaska.
However, fear of a resurgence has many state legislators and health organizations urging the governor to extend the declaration.