ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Alaska public health officials said 58% of residents 65 and older have received a COVID-19 vaccination since distribution efforts began.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said the state hopes to move the process along faster as more contagious and potentially deadly strains of the coronavirus emerge, Alaska’s News Source reported Wednesday.

“Right now, it’s sort of a race against the variants to get people vaccinated,” McLaughlin said Wednesday.

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Wednesday that the state wants more Alaskans 65 and older to receive vaccinations.

“We still want to prioritize that group and, looking at these variants, we just want that group to be vaccinated in every way we possibly can,” Zink said during a video conference with community officials.

“I mean 58% is great, but it would be great to be even higher on that,” Zink said.

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After vaccine appointments prioritized for older residents remained opened for several days, the state moved into the next tier of its distribution plan earlier this month.

Zink said “there was an intentional pause given the really high risk of morbidity and mortality in that group.”

The new phase includes educators, some essential workers and people living and working in congregate settings such as prisons and shelters.

McLaughlin said a variant strain first discovered in the United Kingdom in September is the most concerning to emerge.

About 1,300 cases of the variant have been detected in the U.S. One of those cases was in Alaska, he said.

“It’s associated with a higher transmissibility rate, so probably about 50% higher transmission rate,” McLaughlin said. “And now there’s some evidence to suggest that it may actually be associated with increased morbidity and mortality, so hospitalizations and deaths.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts the variant could take over as the dominant strain circulating in the U.S. at some point this spring, adding more urgency to the state’s efforts to get Alaskans vaccinated, McLaughlin said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.