With vaccination rates among Alaskans remaining lower than the national average, State of Reform hosted a discussion entitled 5 Slides We’re Discussing: Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy with some of the state’s leading experts on the subject.
The discussion included Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the State of Alaska, Elizabeth Ripley, CEO of the Mat-Su Health Foundation, Tracy Foo, vaccine medical director for Pfizer, and State of Reform’s own DJ Wilson.
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According to Wilson’s side on the self-reported vaccination status of Alaskans as of Jan. 10, 43% said they had gotten three doses, 33% said they had received two doses, and 13% said they would not get vaccinated. Among those who said they wouldn’t get vaccinated, 59% said they were concerned about side effects, 54% said they didn’t believe they needed a vaccine, and 47% said they didn’t trust the vaccines. Respondents were able to choose more than one reason.
Zink said they have seen these patterns for a long time, and that it’s important for people to ask questions about vaccines and their own health. However, health care providers should have good information and be able to discuss the benefits of getting a vaccine with people who are concerned.
As the pandemic has progressed, it’s easy to think of the health crisis in a dichotomy, but science and best practices are constantly moving, and it can be difficult to explain that to people.
“Our role is to try and provide access,” to information and resources, Zink said.
Looking back to early 2021 as vaccines were initially rolled out, Zink said Alaskans were vaccinated at higher rates than the U.S. average, in large part due to collaboration and joint efforts with Tribes. But as time went on people had more questions and vaccination rates slowed.
Zink said that 66% of unvaccinated adults think vaccine requirements are a greater threat to health and safety than being exposed to covid, and 77% don’t trust the federal government’s guidance about vaccines.
“What’s heartbreaking is when we see people get so sick because of the misinformation and fear about this that then results in decisions that aren’t empowering their health and their community’s health,” Zink said.
Ripley said over time vaccine hesitancy has changed in some areas. She likened it to Alaska’s eventual successful push to expand Medicaid in the state. Many people thought it would never happen in Alaska, but after a single election when political will and opportunity aligned, it was passed.
“Never give up is I think one of the things that I’ve learned,” Ripley said. “If it’s policy worth enacting, it’s worth pursuing.”
Foo said confidence is key for any vaccine, but especially for COVID. The vaccines were developed quickly, which caused concern among some people, but she said researchers came together to develop it safely without compromising quality. As far as vaccine safety overall, Zink said she would be more worried about telling Alaskans to take ibuprofen for a week than to get vaccinated.