As the nation’s first two COVID-19 vaccines near federal approval, Hawaii officials are preparing to distribute more than 81,000 doses to high-risk health care workers and first responders before the year’s end.

Gov. David Ige said in a press conference Thursday that Hawaii could receive its first batch of vaccine doses from the federal government as early as next week.

“Today marks a hopeful moment in our fight against this pandemic,” Ige said. “A vaccine is a vital step in keeping our situation from becoming worse, and it is the beginning of our path to recovery.

The announcement came hours after the first COVID-19 vaccine in the United States was endorsed by a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel, clearing the way for the FDA to grant emergency approval of the vaccine developed by Pfizer before the end of the week.

Image of Hand holds Coronavirus Covid-19 Vaccine glass bottle.
Gov. David Ige says Hawaii could receive its first batch of vaccine doses from the federal government as early as next week. Getty Images/iStockphoto

A second COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna is scheduled for FDA review on Dec. 17.

Both vaccines would require two doses. Pfizer requires the doses to be administered exactly three weeks apart. Moderna says its second dose should be spaced 28 days after the first.

The vaccine poses potential side-effects.

Although researchers have not uncovered serious safety problems with the Pfizer doses, some people who’ve been vaccinated have experienced mild to moderate fever, fatigue, headache and arm soreness at the injection site.

I trust the science and plan to be vaccinated as soon as I am able and my place in line comes up,” Ige said.

The first vaccines in Hawaii will go to health care workers at high risk of exposure to the virus and long term care facility residents and staff.

Most Hawaii residents will not receive a COVID-19 vaccine until spring or summer, after two doses have been given to first responders and essential workers.

Hilton Raethel, the president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said ensuring that all high-risk health care workers, as well as residents and staff of long term care homes and senior living facilities, get the vaccine first will help limit the spread of the virus and prevent tragedies.

“Our health care workers risk their lives and their families’ (lives) every day and have been working hard for months to protect themselves and those that they take care of from this virus,” Raethel said. “This vaccine is an important layer of protection for them, in addition to appropriate use of PPE and preventative efforts, such as mask wearing and social distancing by the community.”

Hawaii Health Department Director Dr. Libby Char said disseminating the vaccine across Hawaii — something she said the department has been preparing for for months — is the DOH’s leading priority.

Hospitals would be responsible for vaccinating their own employees and, in some cases, other health care workers in the community.

There is a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies to work with skilled nursing and assisted living facilities to vaccinate residents and workers in long term care facilities.

By February, Char said she expects the state will have finished vaccinating the estimated 44,000 people in Hawaii who meet the criteria for the state’s first phase, including first responders, health workers and kupuna.

The federal government and health insurance companies will cover the costs associated with vaccination for Hawaii residents, said Lt. Gov. Josh Green.

But in order for the state to achieve the goal of herd immunity — when a large portion of a population is immune to an infectious disease, greatly reducing the likelihood that even those who are not vaccinated will catch it — about 70% of the population will need to agree to get vaccinated, officials said.

This could prove challenging. Vaccine skepticism is high, with only 44% of Hawaii residents surveyed in a November poll saying they plan to take the vaccine when it’s available, according to the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center.

“I know people worry about vaccines,” Green said. “I can tell you that I wouldn’t put my family through something if I didn’t have faith in it.”

“I believe it will help us, in a hopeful way, move back to our normal lives,” he added.

More Challenges Ahead

Vaccines normally take years to develop. But the COVID-19 vaccine — a brand new technology called an mRNA vaccine — was developed at lightning speed.

This achievement, however, may not be the biggest hurdle in the rush to tamp down on a virus that has killed nearly 300,000 Americans, including 268 in Hawaii.

The vaccine’s success hinges on the government’s ability to distribute it across the nation quickly while adhering to strict storage requirements.

Department of Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Libby Char.
Hawaii Health Department Director Dr. Libby Char said disseminating the vaccine safely and efficiently across the state is her department’s top priority. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The vaccine requires ultra-cold freezer storage — minus 70 degrees Celsius for the vaccine by Pfizer.

In a bid to allay concerns over logistics, Pfizer has developed its own dry ice-activated packaging system to keep its fragile doses from going bad for weeks at a time while they’re being shipped across the county.

But once the vaccine arrives on Hawaii’s shores, it’s up to the state to maintain proper temperature controls.

A dry ice shortage or lack of freezer space could mean that precious vaccine doses are wasted.

Getting enough people to take the vaccine will also be challenging, as misinformation about vaccinations circulates widely on social media.

While many people will be clamoring for their double doses, Hawaii health officials say they expect to meet some resistance due to general distrust in a COVID-19 vaccination as perpetuated online by anti-vaccination activists.

“We will try our best to get our whole community vaccinated and we will try our best to get the science out there and explain to people,” Char said.

“If people have reluctance and they need to have further discussions, then we should do that, too, so that people understand and can make a reasonable choice,” she said.

Achieving a high vaccination rate across the state is important.

Until the state achieves herd immunity, all the protections that have helped contain the spread of the virus until now — social distancing, mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing — will still be key to keeping infection rates down until the state is able to achieve herd immunity, Green said.

“It will be difficult for people to know whether person A or person B did or didn’t get a vaccine,” Green said. “So we’re going to be very mindful about all of these strong public health recommendations that have been going on for quite some time. Once we get through the summer and our people have been vaccinated … we’ll be in a safer place by the fall.”

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