Chelsea Tremblay of Petersburg receives an Omicron booster shot by volunteer nurse, Sharon Hunter, at a clinic in the community gym, Sept. 26, 2022. Large-scale dispensing exercises like this one will be held throughout Southeast Alaska this fall. (Photo by Angela Denning/CoastAlaska)

Healthcare providers are gearing up for free Omicron booster clinics throughout Southeast Alaska. The first, large-scale one — called a dispensing exercise — happened Sept. 23 in Petersburg where medical staff and residents filled the community gym. CoastAlaska’s Angela Denning stopped by and has this story.

Petersburg resident, Chelsea Tremblay, has been vaccinated for COVID before. She said she’s getting this new booster to prepare her for the indoor winter months. And she works in retail.

“I’m doing some traveling and then I always see travelers where I work, so nice to feel set up for that,” she said.

She’s had COVID before.

“I had COVID this spring and it was not my favorite experience so I would like to both avoid it but also if that was how I felt with some layers of protection, I don’t want to have experienced it without that, for sure,” she said.

Tremblay gets two shots, the Omicron booster in one arm and the flu vaccine in the other. Her nurse, Sharon Hunter, is happy with the clinic so far.

“This has just been such a great response this morning,” she said. “We weren’t sure since they weren’t scheduled appointments how many people were going to roll through the door.”

“And I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get a flu shot too, so that’s really nice,” Tremblay added.

Several other people are entering the gym door for their turn. Tables and chairs are set up for check-ins and shots, and there’s little wait time.

At a back table, nurse Jennifer Bryner, is unwrapping syringes and filling them with the vaccine. She says the local hospital and Public Health office teamed up for the clinic.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect because, you know, we’re all a little tired of all of this COVID,” Bryner said. “But I’m really pleased. It shows me that the community is informed that this booster is a new and improved, different type. It’s bivalent so it protects against the actual strain that’s circulating right now.”

Adam Jackson has already gotten his shot. He’s waiting on a folding chair for 15 minutes before he can leave the gym.

“I fly a lot and it doesn’t hurt to be safe,” he said.

Jackson said he’s had COVID already.

“I was already vaccinated when I did get it and I think because of the vaccination it wasn’t that severe and it’s the reason why I continue to get them now,” he said.

Sitting to his right is Ken Tolentino. He’s in Petersburg for summer work in the cannery.

“After working up here in Alaska, I usually go back home to the Philippines,” he said. “So that is quite a ways from here so I just want to be safe and feel protected.”

Over a million people in the U.S. have died from COVID. The disease isn’t as deadly as it was at the beginning of the pandemic with more treatment options available now. But, some people still get very sick.

“I had to go into the hospital and get fluids and ended up with a secondary infection, had antibiotics, steroids, the whole shebang,” said Ruby Shumway.

Shumway is one of the nurses at the clinic but has personal experience with the disease. She got COVID in May.

“[I] missed a lot of work, and then finally was able to go back to the floor and had to take breaks all the time,” she said. “Working out, my lips would turn blue. It was a very scary time. I’m a diabetic so I knew I was going to have a hard time fighting it but it was unlike anything I’ve ever been through before.”

These large-scale Omicron booster clinics will be happening all over Southeast in the coming month, said Public Health Nurse Erin Michael.

“I know Juneau’s going to be doing them, Ketchikan, Craig, most of the cities that are at least a couple thousand or more people are going to be doing events like this for probably like the next month or so,” she said.

The five-hour Petersburg clinic distributed 298 COVID vaccines (97 Pfizer and 201 Moderna). Organizers ran out of flu shots after 90 were distributed but they plan to order more.

Residents who miss the clinics can get vaccinated at their local Public Health office or hospital.