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Alaskan healthcare workers welcome COVID boosters amid nation’s worst wave



Alaska Native Medical Center nurse Rocky Carloni rolls up his sleeve before receiving a COVID-19 booster shot on Monday. (Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

Alaskan healthcare providers, facing an intense wave of COVID-19 that has engulfed state hospitals, say they are relieved and grateful for a decision by Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allows them to receive vaccine boosters.

Some experts have questioned Walensky’s decision last week that healthy people in high-risk jobs, in addition to the elderly and at-risk groups, can get the recalls if they choose.

Critics said Walensky’s decision, which struck down a divided CDC vaccine advisory committee, gave Americans too much leeway to research third vaccines before residents of poorer countries could get their first and last. created confusion over who qualifies.

But in interviews, many Alaskan healthcare providers said Walensky’s decision was in line with the demands and risks they took amid the country’s most intense outbreak of coronavirus cases and d hospitalizations. Some remote clinics also had doses close to their expiration date.

The Aleutian Islands community of Unalaska. (Berett Wilber / KUCB)

“It’s like your parents telling you to finish your dinner because there are starving children in Africa,” said Dr. Megan Sarnecki, medical director of the Aleutian Island clinic in Unalaska. . “You don’t send your leftovers to starving children in Africa. And we don’t send a vial of which we have only used half to a third world country.

A nationwide debate has been going on over the boosters for more than a month, since President Joe Biden announced that every adult would be entitled to one eight months after their original two-dose vaccine.

Subsequently, federal expert groups tasked with evaluating vaccines recommended them only for certain groups, with members expressing concerns about unnecessary injections and the lack of data showing clear benefits of allowing boosters for one group. most important.

While the Food and Drug Administration panel agreed to offer the injections to people in high-risk jobs, such as healthcare workers and teachers, the CDC’s expert panel was not to. agreed in a 9-6 vote last week. Members said they feared the move would distract the nation from distributing vaccines to the unvaccinated, which has a much higher public health benefit, and they also questioned whether the recommendations were too vague and did not enter into the public confidence.

“We might as well say give it to anyone 18 and over,” the Washington Post said, citing CDC panel expert, pediatrician Paul Sanchez. “We have a really good vaccine, and it’s like saying it doesn’t work, and it works.”

Walensky, the director of the CDC, announced her decision to step down from the panel on Friday, a day after her vote.

The agency’s final statement said people 65 and older, residents of nursing homes and people 50 and older with risky conditions “should” receive booster doses, while Younger people with underlying medical conditions and people in risky workplaces “could” receive the third injection.

The recommendations apply only to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; the expert groups have yet to consider the issue of broad-based boosters for vaccines made by pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

While Walensky’s decision has drawn criticism from some academics and health care administrators, there has been little reaction in Alaska where the current outbreak is putting the state’s hospital system under intense pressure.

Administrators, already overworked on staff, said they did not want to risk losing more employees in groundbreaking COVID-19 cases. In Unalaska, when front desk staff at the clinic contracted the virus, the general manager spent a week answering phone calls, Sarnecki said.

Then there were the personal risks.

Dr. Thomas Kelley works in the intensive care unit at Alaska Native Medical Center. (Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

A recent shift in the intensive care unit at Alaska Native Medical Center was the “most difficult, grueling, depressing and saddest time I have ever experienced,” said the Dr Thomas Kelley in an interview this week outside a clinic where dozens of hospital workers had received their third injection.

“We just watched people die, no matter what we did,” Kelley said. “My reaction to the recommendations to have the booster was, ‘I just want the booster.’ I am terrified of what I see, I remain terrified of what I see, and I don’t scare easily.

There is data suggesting that boosters are safe, effective and may minimize the risk of COVID-19 either for people with health conditions or who face repeated exposure, said Dr Anne Zink, chief medical officer of Alaska. She said the CDC’s “permissive language” addresses concerns about legal protections and liability regarding booster doses and “allows individuals, in association with their health care provider, if necessary, to make that risk decision. -benefit “.

“I just think it really recognized the variety of scenarios and clinical situations that we see, the variety and diversity of the human experience and what we see with COVID as a whole,” Zink said in an interview. . “There are very few healthcare workers that I work with on a regular basis who did not eagerly await this information from the CDC, simply because they are seeing so much COVID right now and really want to do everything in their power. power to keep themselves, their families and their communities safe and healthy.

Zink said the Alaska Department of Health has debated whether to release its own recommendations breaking with the CDC’s panel of experts, although this is no longer necessary after Walensky’s decision, a- she added.

Many Alaskan hospitals and health systems had already started moving forward with booster doses for staff members before the CDC’s announcement.

In the central western Alaskan town of Nome, the tribal health organization, Norton Sound Health Corp, began handing out boosters to staff two weeks ago, after an earlier CDC recommendation that immunocompromised people should receive it.

“We are an incredibly rural and austere medical environment. It takes us a long time to get people in and out of here, ”said Tim Lemaire, a doctor with NSHC. “It will be interesting to see what the evidence shows in the long run. But for us, we thought it was the right call to at least offer it to everyone. “