To some, Alaska’s announcement that it would try to entice travelers by offering Covid-19 vaccinations at its airports might signal the state’s plucky resolve and determination to revive a tourism industry that has been devastated by the pandemic.
To others, it’s a sign of everything that is wrong with the way that the United States is distributing its vaccines, as calls for more doses in surge-stricken Michigan are rebuffed.
“It’s hard for me to believe that we’ve so maldistributed a vaccine as to make this necessary,” said Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who was part of the effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. “You don’t want to exchange a bad carbon footprint for a vaccination.”
Starting on June 1, any tourist traveling to Alaska will be able to receive a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at the Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau or Ketchikan airports. It’s part of a larger multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, funded by federal stimulus money, to attract tourists back to the state, Gov. Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, a Republican, announced.
“We believe there’s a real opportunity to get folks to come to Alaska again,” Mr. Dunleavy said at a news conference on Friday.
Alaska is the latest state to announce plans to extend vaccine eligibility to nonresidents as production and distribution have increased around the country. Twenty-one other states do not have residency requirements for vaccination, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Some U.S. experts have worried for months about the growth in “vaccine tourism” — Americans crossing state lines to get a vaccine where there are excess doses. Virologists like Dr. Brilliant say that rather than incentivizing people to fly to Alaska to get a shot from the state’s abundant vaccine supply, doses should be redistributed to states most in need and no longer be allocated strictly by population.
Alaska is not lacking vaccines, said Heidi Hedberg, the state’s director of public health. Health administrators will begin the airport vaccine program for tourists at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, with a five-day trial at the end of April to gauge interest. Some visitors may have to get their second dose of mRNA vaccines in their home states, depending on how long they remain in Alaska.
Almost 40 percent of Alaskans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to a New York Times database. Thirty-two percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. The state has used 68 percent of its doses.
Alaska was the first state to open up vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 or older living or working in the state, on March 9. At the time of the announcement, Alaska had the highest vaccination rate in the country.
- On April 13, 2021, U.S. health agencies called for an immediate pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose Covid-19 vaccine after six recipients in the United States developed a rare disorder involving blood clots within one to three weeks of vaccination.
- All 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico temporarily halted or recommended providers pause the use of the vaccine. The U.S. military, federally run vaccination sites and a host of private companies, including CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Walmart and Publix, also paused the injections.
- Fewer than one in a million Johnson & Johnson vaccinations are now under investigation. If there is indeed a risk of blood clots from the vaccine — which has yet to be determined — that risk is extremely low. The risk of getting Covid-19 in the United States is far higher.
- The pause could complicate the nation’s vaccination efforts at a time when many states are confronting a surge in new cases and seeking to address vaccine hesitancy.
- Johnson & Johnson has also decided to delay the rollout of its vaccine in Europe amid concerns over rare blood clots, dealing another blow to Europe’s inoculation push. South Africa, devastated by a more contagious virus variant that emerged there, suspended use of the vaccine as well. Australia announced it would not purchase any doses.
The United States has continued to speed up vaccination efforts, and is now averaging 3.2 million doses a day, up from roughly two million a day in early March. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Saturday that about 129.5 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
Dr. Brilliant said states like Michigan, the center of the country’s worst surge, should be receiving larger allocations of doses.
The Biden administration and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, have been at odds over her calls for an increase in her state’s vaccine supply. But the Biden administration held fast to distributing vaccines by state population, not by triage.
“The vaccine should go where it will do the most good,” Dr. Brilliant said. “Given the scarcity of vaccine in the world, every dose should be given in a way that is most effective at stopping this pandemic.”
But the issue could be moot by the time that Alaska’s tourist vaccination program begins in earnest on June 1: most Americans who want to be vaccinated might already have received at least one dose by then, said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“We’re going to reach a point where people don’t need to fly to Alaska to get vaccinated,” he said. “I think it’s going to be more of the case that, here’s an opportunity to visit Alaska and it’s convenient to get vaccinated.”