Hawaii’s first batch of COVID-19 vaccines are coming, and officials want to make sure people take them.

Although most Hawaii residents will not have the opportunity to be inoculated until spring or summer — in the priority line, health care workers, first responders and essential workers come first — a campaign is building to promote confidence in the safety, efficacy and public health necessity of the nation’s first vaccinations against the coronavirus.

“What I’m really looking forward to is getting enough people in Hawaii willing to take this vaccine when it’s their turn so that by high school graduation, we actually have graduation,” said Dr. Melinda Ashton, a pediatrician who is the chief quality officer at Hawaii Pacific Health. 

Queen’s Medical Center staff sits on benches with plexiglass partitions during COVID-19 pandemic. December 10, 2020
Employees at the Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu will be among the first in the state to be inoculated with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Ashton was one of several leading Hawaii health officials to address vaccine concerns on Friday during a public informational briefing facilitated by the state legislative committees on health and on pandemic and disaster preparedness.

She spoke hours before the Food and Drug Administration marked a monumental moment in the pandemic by granting the Pfizer vaccine emergency use authorization, paving the way for the rollout of the initial doses to Hawaii and other states.

The Pfizer vaccine, as well as most other COVID-19 vaccines in line for federal authorization, must be delivered in two doses about three weeks apart.

Staff at The Queen’s Health Systems on Oahu were preparing to receive the first 975 vaccine doses as early as Monday. The first batch will go to employees at Queen’s Punchbowl and Queen’s West Oahu campuses. A second shipment is expected to arrive exactly 21 days later in time for the second dose for those same employees. 

The shipment departed Michigan on Friday directly from Pfizer’s largest manufacturing site to Honolulu, according to Jason Chang, president of The Queen’s Medical Center and chief operating officer of The Queen’s Health Systems.

State and health officials were rushing to set in motion what will be a monthslong process to receive and distribute the vaccines with hopes high that they will ease the pandemic that has wreaked havoc on lives and economies around the world.

Queen’s Health Systems has more than 6,000 Oahu employees and Chang expects it will be take about two months for all of them to have the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

Officials Try To Reassure Skeptics

By February, Hawaii Health Department Director Dr. Libby Char said she expects the state will have finished vaccinating the people in Hawaii who meet the criteria for the state’s first phase, including first responders, health workers and kupuna.

The state recently published its draft plan for the rollout, which outlines an estimated 44,000 people prioritized for phase one. 

No one will be mandated by the government, nor their employer, to get vaccinated when it is approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, state officials said.

In turn, the public has a critical choice in whether to contribute to the public health goal of achieving herd immunity through vaccination, something that Hawaii can only gain if most residents roll up their sleeve for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Many people are skeptical and wonder why is it that we were able to get this done so quickly — and is it, in fact, safe?” Ashton said.

“But one thing you need to know is … this didn’t all start in January or February of 2020,” she said. “Much of this work has been going on for decades with dedicated scientists who knew that a pandemic would be coming at some point and that we would need some vaccine response.”

As the nation’s first two COVID-19 vaccines near federal approval, Hawaii health officials say they expect to receive more than 81,000 vaccine doses from Pfizer and Moderna by the end of the year.

Storage and temperature requirements vary depending on the vaccine, but most require sub-zero temperatures. Pfizer, for example, is sending temperature-controlled thermal shippers with dry ice that can last up to 10 days if unopened. The shipment containers themselves can be used as temporary storage for up to a month if the dry ice is replenished every five days, or, a better option Chang said, is to store it in proper freezers that can keep it for up to six months.

Queen’s Medical Center President and COO Jason Chang announces the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine next week. December 10, 2020
Jason Chang, president of The Queen’s Medical Center and chief operating officer of The Queen’s Health Systems, said Pfizer’s shipment is expected to arrive as early as Monday.  The first doses are reserved for first responders and health personnel. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Chang said The Queen’s Medical Center at Punchbowl has two ultra-cold freezers and another freezer will arrive at the Queen’s West Oahu hospital campus on Thursday. Queen’s is working to attain another freezer at its North Hawaii Community Hospital campus on the Big Island next week.

Beyond the two initial vaccine shipments headed to the Queen’s Medical Center, the state Health Department is soon expecting another shipment of Pfizer vaccine doses for distribution to the neighbor islands, Chang said. But he did not know when or how large that shipment will be.

It’s critically important that health care workers educate the public on the vaccine’s side effects, Dr. Tarquin Collis, an infectious disease specialist at Kaiser Permanente Hawaii, said during Friday’s legislative briefing.

Researchers have not uncovered serious safety problems with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, however some people who’ve been vaccinated have experienced mild to moderate fever, fatigue, headache and arm soreness at the injection site. 

Doctors say these symptoms dissipate in a matter of days.

“People should really expect to feel achy and tired and have a bit of a sore arm for a day or two, especially after the second shot,” Collis said. “And as I tell my patients, this is the feeling of your immune system at work. It’s not a bad thing. It will not last long. And of course, it’s much better than catching COVID-19.”

Vaccination is an ideal way to achieve herd immunity, which happens when a large portion of a population is immune to an infectious disease. With herd immunity, the risk of the disease spreading from person to person plummets, even for those who are unable to get vaccinated, such as newborns and people with compromised immune systems.

Experts say about 70% of Hawaii residents must get vaccinated against COVID-19 for the population to achieve herd immunity and the vaccine will be far less effective if that’s not achieved. 

Vaccine skepticism has recently allowed measles, another contagious disease, to make a deadly comeback in parts of the world with slipping vaccination rates, including some communities in the United States.

“There’s only two ways to achieve herd immunity once you’ve got a pandemic on your hands, and that’s either through immunization or through natural infection,” Collis said. “If you take a look at what’s happening on the mainland right now, you’ll see what natural infection looks like with this virus.”

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