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'A Little Poke In the Arm And You're Done:' Unalaska's COVID-19 Vaccine Has Arrived

Hope McKenney/KUCB

The first doses of COVID-19 vaccine have landed in Unalaska. 

The doses manufactured by drug company Moderna touched down around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on a Ravn Alaska flight from Anchorage; they were rushed immediately to the island's clinic, and within a few hours, the first Unalaskans had received their shots.

A group of frontline medical providers and emergency responders stood six feet apart in the after hours area of the Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic. Some were waiting to be injected with the vaccine, while others were waiting to see if they had an allergic reaction before leaving the building. 

"The injection feels the same as any other vaccine," said Dr. Meg Sarnecki, one of 20 people to get the shot Tuesday afternoon, just hours after it arrived. "A little poke in the arm and you're done. We watch you for 15 minutes, if you have any history of anaphylaxis or severe allergies, we'll be watching you for 30 minutes, and that's it, easy."


Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB
100 doses of the Moderna vaccine arrived around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on a Ravn Alaska flight from Anchorage.

Across the state, the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are going to frontline hospital workers and residents and staff of long-term care centers like nursing homes. Next on the list are emergency responders and health care workers in other settings.


For Unalaska, that means the first round of vaccines are for providers at Unalaska's clinics, emergency responders who have direct contact with patients, as well as elders at Unalaska's senior center, according to Melanee Tiura, chief executive of the IFHS clinic. 

"We're not yet focused on individuals who are not directly interfacing with patients or who can work remotely. Right now, it's really the direct interface providers," she said.

The next vaccine shipment will reach beyond clinic settings to other providers in Unalaska, like chiropractors and physical therapists, Tiura added. 

Lori Jackson is a nurse practitioner and medical director for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, which operates the tribal community clinic in Unalaska. She said the island opted to wait for the Moderna vaccine, which got federal emergency authorization last week and can be stored in a normal freezer. 

Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB
June McGlashan, a community health aide at the Oonalaska Wellness Center, receiving the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday afternoon.

Another vaccine from drug company Pfizer was approved earlier. But it needs to be kept at ultracold temperatures, which meant that the Moderna version was a better fit for an Aleutian island 800 air miles from Anchorage that's known for its inclement weather and canceled flights. 


Jackson said she's learned from problems getting other types of vaccines to Unalaska.


"I already had frozen vaccines that in the last couple of weeks didn't make it out here," she said. "And that was just a frozen vaccine. That wasn't an ultra-freeze, minus 70 to minus 90, that we are required for Pfizer."


Last week, Ketchikan's first air freight shipment of the Pfizer vaccine spoiled from being too warm. 


"The storage and handling of these vaccines is, to say the least, difficult to get them out to remote locations," Jackson said. "I know that we aren't the only ones that are struggling. There's a lot of a remote Alaska that also has the same struggle with getting vaccines out."


But the first 100 doses of Moderna vaccine made it to the island intact. 


The vaccine's arrival was an exciting development for Alysha Richardson, who works on safety and emergency response for the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, the island's tribal government.

She said the coronavirus, like many health conditions, has disproportionately affected Alaska Native and Native American people. 


Credit Courtesy of APIA
Lori Jackson picks up the COVID-19 vaccine at Unalaska's Tom Madsen Airport on Tuesday.


"We live on an island very far away from hospital care," Richardson said. "We have very limited medical staff whom we all know and love. And so, to know that there's this added layer of protection very close to our fingertips for at least some of us — not for all of us — it's very exciting."

Like Richardson, Jackson said she, too, sees a light at the end of the tunnel. But, she said, we're not there yet, and despite the vaccine, Unalaskans should keep up their efforts to reduce the virus' spread.


"It takes a full five to six weeks, plus that second dose at day 28, to get a fully robust immune system against COVID," Jackson said. "We still are going to need to mask, we're still going to need to social distance, and we're still going to need to sanitize."

Unalaska is expected to get another shipment of 100 doses of Moderna vaccine next week. 


The island will also act as a hub for more vaccines that will go to a pair of even more remote Aleutian communities, Atka and Nikolski. Officials are waiting on approvals to transport the vaccine to those locations. 

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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