I hope that as you read this holiday weekend, you spend time with friends and family and find time to do whatever it is that is filling you up – maybe get some extra sleep, read a book by the fire or go outside for some physical activity and time in nature, taking care of your mental and physical health.
You can also mourn the loss of a loved one, miss family or friends, or reflect on the challenges of the past years. As we approach the darkest time of the year in Alaska, I find that gratitude can brighten even the darkest days.
Even with loss to my own family this year, there are so many things I am grateful for – family, friends, the amazing teams I work with in the state of Alaska and in the emergency department, our beautiful and inspiring state, and Alaskans who inspire me every day with their energy, strength and resilience.
But this photo of my predecessor, Dr. Jay Butler, sums it up best: This year I am very thankful for the COVID-19 vaccines.
Developed by science in record time and with impressive safety and effectiveness, the COVID-19 vaccines remain our strongest tool in the fight against the pandemic, helping us return to our lives and the things we love and cherish. The vaccine itself is destroyed by our bodies shortly after it is administered; what remains is our natural immune system that is now better trained to recognize and fight off the SARS-CoV-2 virus when we become infected.
Vaccines are one of the safest things we do in medicine, often safer than even over-the-counter drugs. Many people today overestimate the risks of the vaccines and underestimate the risks of COVID-19, but the data is clear: Vaccines help protect you, your family and your community, and are safe for almost everyone ages 5 and older.
On Nov. 19, COVID-19 vaccine boosters became available to anyone aged 18 and older when six months have passed since a person’s second dose of mRNA (Pfizer or Moderna) vaccine or two months have passed since a single injection of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine . While the vaccines remain highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death, we are seeing protection against the vaccines diminish over time. Boosters help restore strong immunity and increase protection against COVID-19, benefiting all Alaskans. This is a great time — as people travel and visit others during the holiday season — for most Alaskans to get a boost.
This also applies if you have previously had COVID-19. While immunity to past infections offers some degree of protection, it is variable and, like immunity to vaccines, also declines over time. Studies show that people who were previously infected are better protected if they are also vaccinated. However, you should not be vaccinated if you are actively contagious with COVID-19 or within 90 days of receiving monoclonal antibodies.
Boosters, such as the primary line of the COVID-19 vaccines, are free and widely available. You can find them, like COVID-19 vaccines, at pop-up events, school clinics, doctor’s offices, or pharmacies. You can find a vaccine provider by visiting vaccines.gov or covidvax.alaska.gov, or by calling our helpline at 907-646-3322 if you have any questions or are having trouble finding an appointment.
If you are looking for a booster you can get the same brand as before or you can use a “mix and match” approach to booster shots. For example, people who initially received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can opt for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for their booster. It seems that people get better protection against the mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer), so this may be worth considering when choosing your booster. You can also get your COVID-19 vaccine or booster at the same time as you get other vaccines, such as your flu shot, which is important this year as the flu is on the rise and Alaska flu vaccination rates have fallen this year.
We are making tangible progress. More than 370,000 Alaskans have so far committed to being fully vaccinated against COVID, and we now have life-saving therapies if people become infected. The number of cases is starting to decrease, thousands of Alaskans are starting their vaccine series every week, our hospitals are starting to increase in capacity and it is joyful to see people gather, laugh, cuddle and be together. We are not powerless over this pandemic. We have tools to stay healthy and well. We must take care of our physical and mental health, get vaccinated and boosted, wash our hands, test for symptoms or before events and gatherings, stay at home and seek early treatment when we are sick – and although the cases in many communities are high , mask in public.
Like those legendary sled dogs from Alaskan lore, the heroes of the 1925 Serum run to Nome, Alaskans are tough and take care of each other. This holiday season, let’s count our many blessings, celebrate what it means to be Alaskans, and continue to protect ourselves and our communities — remembering that the enemy is the virus, not each other.
dr. Anne Zink, MD, is a board-certified emergency physician and Alaska’s chief medical officer.
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