As the first COVID-19 vaccine inches closer to federal approval, Hawaii health officials continue to make preparations for shipments expected to arrive as early as next month.

If the federal government approves a vaccine for emergency use, Hawaii could start vaccinating some groups before the end of the year.

“Depending upon how long it takes the FDA to issue their authorization, a vaccine could potentially be available in weeks,” Department of Health Spokeswoman Janice Okubo said in an email to Civil Beat.

Image of Hand holds Coronavirus Covid-19 Vaccine glass bottle.
Hawaii could receive the first shipments of a COVID-19 vaccine in December, if pharmaceutical companies receive emergency use authorization from the FDA. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The timeline of the rollout depends on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its approval. Among dozens of vaccines under development, the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna appear most likely to be approved in coming months.

Pfizer on Friday submitted an application to the FDA for an official “emergency use authorization” to distribute its vaccine and Moderna’s application is expected in the coming weeks.

Clinical trials show promising results, with each company claiming more than a 90% effective rate.

The U.S. government’s “Operation Warp Speed” has pushed nearly $3 billion to pharmaceutical contracts with the goal of producing 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine nationwide by January 2021.

In a Facebook Live interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Friday that he expects about 44,000 people — receiving two doses each — will be vaccinated during the first round.

First responders and health care workers would get access to the vaccines first, followed by kupuna and people with chronic or underlying conditions. A later phase of distribution would open for young and healthy people.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said he expects manufacturing to ramp up once vaccines receive federal approval. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Green told the Star-Advertiser the vaccines would go straight to hospitals because they already have staff that can administer the vaccines. There are plans to distribute to long-term care facilities as well.

Green said he hopes by April a large chunk of Hawaii’s population will have immunity.

It’s a historic undertaking, and many experts say there’s not yet enough data to provide a complete picture about how the vaccine will work in different populations.

“We’re being assured consistently by the scientists and manufacturers that they are not taking any shortcuts,” Healthcare Association of Hawaii President and CEO Hilton Raethel said Friday. “No one wants the vaccine to go into production and start being used if it’s not safe. There are an enormous number of precautions being taken.”

The Hawaii Department of Health, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, Healthcare Association of Hawaii and hospitals are all working in concert to acquire ultra-cold storage and purchase dry ice, according to Raethel.

Hawaii’s hospitals currently do not have enough ultra-cold storage space. Still, he maintained Hawaii will be ready to accept the vaccine when it arrives.

It’s still not clear how many doses will be available for the first round.

Both leading vaccine candidates must be administered in two doses, which will require lots of logistical planning. Vaccines will vary not only by dosage but by other criteria, such as requirements for storage at certain temperatures.

The Pfizer vaccine can be kept on dry ice but once placed in a freezer it will last only five days. The Moderna vaccine’s developers claim it can last up to a month in the refrigerator.

Pfizer plans to distribute the vaccine in its own dry ice packaging, a fairly new practice, according to Elliot Parks, the president and CEO of Hawaii Biotech, which is developing a COVID-19 vaccine of its own locally in the islands.

“You can only open dry ice containers twice a day for five minutes at a time. It’s fairly restrictive,” he said.

Each thermo-insulated container provided by Pfizer will hold between 1,000 and 5,000 doses, according to Okubo, the health department spokeswoman. Dry ice can be replenished every five days to extend its shelf life, she said.

“There is an Oahu distributor of the pellet dry ice required for the container,” she said in an email. “DOH has memorandums of understanding and existing contract relationships to transport the pellet dry ice to the neighbor islands as needed.”

DOH Immunization Branch Chief Ronald Balajadia said last month he expected the entire program to cost a minimum of $25 million. The federal government will cover drug and shipping costs, but other costs of planning, supplies, and administrative expenses will be covered by the state.

The pace at which these vaccines are being developed is unprecedented, Parks said.

“The individual consumer will hopefully have the ability to choose which vaccine they feel most comfortable taking. First responders and health workers are going to want to take whatever vaccine as soon as they can get it, because it’s pretty clear that all of these vaccines so far have been safe in the short term.”

Typically vaccines go through studies that last at least two years.

“It’s going to take another year and a half or more, 18 to 21 months to get those long term data,” he said. “But to me that’s the only caveat.”

Civil Beat Reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this story.

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