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Hawai‘i Rolls Out Vaccination Plan, as 81K Vaccines Expected Before December’s End

December 11, 2020, 8:17 AM HST
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Big Island Now stock photo. April 2016.

More than 80,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine will land in Hawai‘i by the end of the month, allowing the state to vaccinate all of its long-term care patients and frontline healthcare workers before the new year.

Gov. David Ige and a handful of health officials announced the news Thursday, after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization to Pfizer, allowing for the distribution of its COVID-19 vaccine. Similar authorization is expected for Moderna’s vaccine in the coming days. Between the two, 81,000 vaccines are expected to arrive in Hawai‘i before December is out. Dr. Elizabeth Char, director of the state Department of Health, said the rate of vaccine arrival and distribution will only accelerate from there.

“We expect that by summer, we will be well into vaccinating the general population — perhaps faster,” Char said.

The two vaccines have 95% and 94% effectiveness rates across all demographics, according to Phase-3 trials that have now procured data from thousands of subjects. Each requires a second dose for full effectiveness — Pfizer’s requiring a second shot three weeks after the first, and Moderna’‘s requiring a second shot four weeks later.

Side effects were noted in patients who took each vaccine, though they were generally mild and occurred in between 2–3% of individuals who received them, according to information provided Thursday by Lt. Gov. Josh Green who is also a practicing physician.

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The most common side effects were pain and redness at the injection site, headache, and fatigue. Other side effects included muscle pain, joint pain, and fever.

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Dr. Kelley Withy, of the Hawai‘i Pacific Basin Area Health Education Center and a COVID-19 vaccine trial participant, said she received the vaccine and would recommend it to everyone, including her own children.

“I believe in the science,” she said. “Now, I feel just a little bit invincible, and I’m really glad I did it. … I really trust this, and I’m recommending it to others.”

Withy acknowledged that she suffered some side effects. She said the injection site hurt for three or four days after both the first and second doses. After the second shot, she said she had mild headaches for an approximately three-day period that she treated with Tylenol.

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Governor Ige, Lieutenant Governor Green, and Major General Kenneth Hara, Adjutant General for the State of Hawai‘i, all said they would take the vaccine as soon as their place comes up in the queue. Vaccine distribution is tiered, prioritizing long-term care patients, healthcare workers, first responders, and at-risk populations before everyone else.

“I wouldn’t put my family through something I didn’t have faith in,” said Green, adding his children will receive the vaccine as well when it’s their turn. “It will not be mandatory. But what I can say is I believe it will help us in a hopeful way to move back to our normal lives.”

A November study conducted by the Public Policy Center at UH-Mānoa indicated that only 44% of Hawai‘i residents said they would take the vaccine immediately after it became available. That represents a 7% drop from a similar study conducted by the center in August.

The low number reflects concerns around how the treatments were fast-tracked and is compounded by a minority segment of the population that is skeptical of vaccines in general, despite history and science showing evidence that vaccination procedures are largely safe when appropriately developed and medically vetted (see: the eradication of smallpox and polio throughout the United States via vaccinations).

Green said Thursday that he’s confident by the end of 2021, the percentage of vaccinated Hawai‘i residents will be much higher than 50%, as people see others receive the vaccine and realize that the safe and prudent choice is to take it.

“We’ll see a decrease in our hospitalizations moving forward, (but we’re) still going to ask people to respectfully wear a mask,” Green said. “We’ll be in a safer place by fall.”

While the vaccine will not be mandatory for the general public, it may become mandatory for people working in certain sectors, such as healthcare. Currently, Pfizer’s vaccine has been granted emergency use authorization, while Moderna’s vaccine is expected to achieve the same status within a week or two. Neither will receive full FDA approval for another three to seven months, according to President and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawai‘i Hilton Raethel. Until then, there will be no vaccine mandates.

“Once they do receive full FDA approval, employers at that time could make a decision to require that employees … (be vaccinated) in order to continue work,” Raethel said.

Both vaccines will be distributed and administered at no cost to citizens. All medical insurers in the state have said they will foot any bill for the vaccine.

Vaccinations will be available through individual healthcare providers as well as strategic public health points of distribution (PODS) across the state to increase timely access to the treatment.

Medical testing equipment will be shipped in equal numbers to vaccine doses. However, items like needles and syringes will be shipped separately, necessitating coordination of materials by the state to ensure timely and effective administration of vaccines once they arrive in Hawai‘i.

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