I hope that as you read this, you are spending time this holiday weekend with friends and family and finding time to do whatever it is that recharges you – maybe getting some extra sleep, reading a book by the fire or heading outside for some physical activity and time in nature, caring for your mental and physical health.

You may also be grieving the loss of a loved one, missing family or friends, or reflecting on the challenges of the last few years. As we approach the darkest time of the year in Alaska, I find gratitude can help brighten even the darkest days.

Even with loss in my own family this year, there are so many things I am grateful for – family, friends, the amazing teams I work with at 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 from my predecessor, Dr. Jay Butler, summarizes it best – this year I am most grateful for the COVID vaccines.

Developed by science in record time and with impressive safety and effectiveness, the COVID vaccines remain our strongest tool in combating the pandemic and helping us return to our lives and the things we love and cherish. The vaccine itself is destroyed by our body shortly after it’s administered; what is left is our natural immune system that is now better trained to recognize and fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus if we do get infected.

Vaccines are one of the safest things we do in medicine, often safer than even over-the-counter medication. Many people these days overestimate the risks of the vaccines and underestimate the risks of COVID, but the data is clear, vaccines help protect you, your family and your community and are safe for nearly everyone age five and older.

On Nov. 19, COVID vaccine boosters became available for anyone age 18 and older if six months have passed since a person’s second dose of mRNA (Pfizer or Moderna) vaccine or two months have passed since a single shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. While the vaccines remain highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death, we’re seeing that protection from the vaccines does wane over time. Boosters help restore strong immunity and increase protection against COVID, a benefit to all Alaskans. This is a great time – as people start traveling and visiting with others during the holiday season – for most Alaskans to get boosted.

This is also true even if you have previously had COVID. While immunity from past infection does provide some level of protection, it is variable and, like immunity from the vaccines, also wanes over time. Studies show that people who were previously infected are better protected when they are also vaccinated. However, you should not get vaccinated if you are actively infectious with COVID or are within 90 days of receiving monoclonal antibodies.

Boosters, like the primary series of the COVID vaccines, are free and widely available. You can find them, like COVID vaccines, at pop-up events, school clinics, doctors’ 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 questions or trouble finding an appointment.

When you are looking for a booster, you can get the same brand as before or you can take a ‘mix and match’ approach to booster shots. For example, people who initially received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can choose either Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for their booster. It does look like people get better protection from the mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer) so this may be worth considering as you choose your booster. You can also get your COVID vaccine or booster at the same time you receive other vaccines such as your flu shot, which is important this year as influenza is picking up and flu vaccination rates for Alaska are down this year.

We’re making tangible progress. More than 370,000 Alaskans to date have rolled up their sleeves to become fully vaccinated against COVID and we now have life-saving therapeutics if people do get infected. Cases are starting to come down, thousands of Alaskans are starting their vaccine series every week, our hospitals are starting to have more capacity and it is joyous to see people gather, laugh, hug and be together. We are not powerless over this pandemic. We have tools to stay healthy and well. We must care for our physical and mental health, get vaccinated and boosted, wash our hands, test if we have symptoms or before events and gatherings, stay home and seek early treatment when we are sick – and, while cases are high in many communities, mask when in public.

Like those legendary sled dogs of Alaska lore, the heroes of the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaskans are tough and care for each other. This holiday season let us count our many blessings, celebrate what it means to be Alaskans, and continue to protect ourselves and our communities – remembering the enemy is the virus, and not each other.

Dr. Anne Zink, M.D., is a board-certified emergency physician and Alaska’s chief medical officer.

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