Imagine if you could catch a couple salmon and then get your coronavirus vaccine, all without even leaving the beach.
This summer, Kenai’s popular dip-net fisheries might also be public health hubs.
“We’re just trying to target these underserved areas and people that may have either vaccine hesitancy or a language barrier or whatever it is," said Tony Prior, the Kenai fire chief. "If they haven’t already been vaccinated by the time dip-net season rolls around, it will be available.”
Prior said the city plans to use a mobile vaccine clinic to bring vaccines to several groups — among them, dip-net fishermen, seafood industry workers and those who are homebound.
That kind of outreach is a focal point for many Alaska cities and boroughs at this point in the pandemic, now that they’re flush with vaccine supply and are looking for more arms to jab.
The state has put aside money for municipalities to administer vaccines and conduct tests. The Kenai Peninsula Borough is getting almost $3 million, which it said it will spend on mobile clinics for hard-to-reach communities and a public outreach campaign, among other things.
Kenai is receiving just under $327,000, though it doesn’t have to spend it all, since it’s a reimbursable program.
Some of those funds will go to its mobile clinic. Prior said at the beaches, specifically, he hopes to reach people who may have been hesitant to get the vaccine earlier and have since come around.
One challenge of the mobile method is vaccines require a 15-minute monitoring period immediately after. Prior sees that as an opportunity for those who might be waiting to launch their boats.
“In that time period, when they’re waiting to launch, their 15 minutes has passed," he said. "And so they can launch their boat and be on their way in, go do their fishing.
Kenai also plans on taking its mobile unit to process workers.
Many processing plant employees come from out of state or overseas. But anyone working in Alaska can get the vaccine here.
Nate Berga, plant manager at Kenai’s Pacific Star Seafoods, said the company doesn’t require staff to get vaccinated. But he does want to make it easy for those who want to.
"And the Kenai Fire Department’s actually helping out with that," he said. "So it’s been a plus. It’s going to be really easy if they want the one shot and be done with it. They don’t have to go anywhere. They’re coming right to ‘em. And they can opt in and get the shot right then and there.”
Seafood workers have to quarantine for two weeks upon arriving. That’s also how long the Johnson & Johnson vaccine takes to fully realize.
Prior said they’ll vaccinate employees when they first arrive.
"By the time they’re finished with their quarantine period, they will have built immunity and they can go to work without worrying about anything," he said.
COVID-19 has had an outsized impact on the seafood processing industry, most recently shuttering two plants in the Aleutians.
Berga said his plant has been fortunate to have little contact with COVID. There are separate properties where they can quarantine employees, including two workers who tested positive but were asymptomatic last summer.
Seafood workers will still have to follow mitigation protocols even after they’re vaccinated, per the state’s plan. For example, they’ll quarantine when they come into the state, no matter their vaccine status.
Berga said he hopes the state will change that requirement.
"The vaccine itself won’t change much right now for us, other than probably give us a peace of mind that a large percentage of our group will be vaccinated and as far as any issues in the community, it’s not going to be coming from us or those people," he said.
He said he’s expecting between 100 and 150 workers this summer, coming up in smaller groups.
When they do get here, the mobile clinic will be ready to greet them.