A Honolulu doctor, two nurses, a respiratory therapist and a housekeeping aide were the first volunteers in the state to be inoculated with a long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday.

The five employees of The Queen’s Health Systems are among the first of an estimated 35,000 high-risk health workers and 11,000 first responders prioritized to get the shot across the state.

Dr. Lester Morehead was the first in Hawaii to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Pfizer vaccine, approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, is administered in two doses about three weeks apart. Gov. David Ige said the state is expecting a delivery of 3,900 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Wednesday, followed by another 45,000 doses by the end of the month.

Queen’s received one of the first shipments Monday, with approximately 975 first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine tucked inside a box the size of a personal pizza. Queen’s is expecting the delivery of second doses for the same employees to arrive in three weeks. Thousands of doses will be delivered on a weekly basis and stored in ultra-cold freezers.

Dr. Lester Morehead, a hospitalist who works directly with patients affected by the disease in The Queen’s Medical Center COVID-19 unit, volunteered to get the first shot in front of television cameras. After caring for entire families who were infected, he urged everyone to take the shot.

“Don’t just think about yourself. Think about your entire family,” he said. “It’s OK to be concerned. But I’m confident in the science. My biggest fear is people won’t get the vaccine.”

Jason Chang, president of The Queen’s Medical Center and chief operation officer for The Queen’s Health Systems, said in a typical year, 90% of employees get a flu shot. He expects high adoption rates for the COVID-19 vaccine as well. Inoculation is not mandatory.

Deborah Lichota, a registered nurse who works in the intensive care unit, also said she was grateful to get the vaccine Tuesday after an “exhausting” year.

“We as nurses want to save and protect lives, and there have been times where we’re at a patient’s bedside holding their hand when it should be their family with them,” she said. “We’ve seen people who were once very strong become just a fraction of the person they once were. There are long-term effects that are going to haunt people forever and that’s why (vaccine) non-believers need to see it.”

The federal government is allocating vaccine doses to states based on their populations.

It will likely be at least six months before Hawaii has a sufficient supply to offer vaccines to 70% of the state’s 1.4 million population — the benchmark that officials intend to reach.

Queen’s officials estimated it will take two months to offer inoculations to their 8,000 employees statewide.

According to the state’s vaccination plan, an estimated 46,000 people in Hawaii will be offered the vaccine in the first phase, including hospital and nursing home workers, first responders and others who work in settings that put them at a higher risk for coming into contact with bodily fluids or aerosols.

An estimated 35,000 health workers deemed most at risk for COVID-19 will be among the first group to be vaccinated. Hawaii’s estimated 22,000 teachers and school staff won’t receive vaccines until the second phase. 

The next group will include people of all ages with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe bouts of COVID-19, followed by thousands of elderly Hawaii residents who live in communal settings.

The Hawaii Department of Health and City and County of Honolulu ran drills on Monday to practice delivery and distribution of the vaccine.

Scientists have yet to determine if a person who has been vaccinated can still carry the virus and infect others, according to the Department of Health Director, Dr. Libby Char.

“We do not know how long the vaccine will confer immunity,” she said in a statement Monday. “Until these questions are answered, we must continue to protect ourselves and the people we love by wearing face masks and physical distancing.”

Jill Hoggard Green, the Queen’s statewide system’s new president and chief executive officer, said the vaccines are not a cure but will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and offer the first sign of hope during the pandemic.

“We are still in the middle of a battle,” she said. “With the vaccine we have the opportunity to become a healthier community.”

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