Denby Fawcett: COVID-19 Vaccine Offers Hope But It's Not A Panacea - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

I found it thrilling to get a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and eagerly await a second injection. That’s a rare burst of enthusiasm from a person like me who normally hates shots.

But it is also sobering to know that the vaccine alone is not a panacea. The vaccine offers only one very important tool to prevent sickness in what could be a full year or more before we reach the stage known as herd immunity.


Herd immunity is when 70% to 80% of the population develops immunity to COVID-19, leaving the virus with very few people to infect.

With herd immunity, SARS-CoV-2, the strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, will effectively have been given a kick in the butt  — not eradicated but significantly squashed.

“I understand that getting the vaccine is a relief. I got excited when I got the vaccine myself. But it is going to be quite a while before we are able to let down our guard,” acting state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said Friday in a telephone interview.

Unfortunately, until enough people get vaccinated or develop natural immunity after recovering from the disease, COVID-19 vaccines are not a ticket to freedom.

Now confounding progress, there is the unsettling appearance of new variants of the original virus appearing in many parts of the world that are reported to be more contagious and could possibly erode protective effects of the current vaccines.

The Department of Health also reported Monday that it detected a variant in two Hawaii cases, which the DOH says is concerning because this type has been linked to a growing number of cases in California including several large outbreaks.

That means even the vaccinated must continue to follow all the same safety measures including wearing masks, maintaining safe distances from other people, hand washing, avoiding poorly ventilated indoor spaces, crowds, social gatherings and unnecessary travel.

Here are some of the reasons why:

First, the vaccine takes a while to help the body develop an immune response. Kemble says not until 14 days after the administration of the second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna shots — the two vaccines currently offered in Hawaii — will a person’s body be sufficiently fortified to fight the coronavirus if exposed.

Kemble says she knows of people who have come down with COVID-19 after their first dose of the vaccine, although it could be because they were already infected upon injection or they didn’t have enough time after the initial shot to develop protective antibodies.

And even a fully vaccinated person can get the virus. Immunity for both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines is 95%, meaning a small number could still get sick.

Yet both vaccines will keep a person from contracting a deadly form of the disease.

Chuck Reindollar rubs the arm that Registered Nurse Caryn Amii just vaccinated at Pier 2 during the COVID-19 vaccinations. January 18, 2021
State officials are racing to vaccinate as many people with mass clinics such as this one at Pier 2 on Jan. 18. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“It is pretty clear the vaccine offers 94-95% protection against symptomatic infection and it protects entirely against severe infections,” Dr. Tarquin Collis, infectious disease chief at Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center says.

Another reason for vaccinated people to remain vigilant is they still may be contagious. It is not known yet if vaccinated individuals can contract mild or asymptomatic cases of the disease that they might not even notice but could transmit to others.

Also, it is still unknown how long immunity produced by the vaccines lasts.

“Unfortunately, the return to normal life is still in the future. It is going to take a gradual approach,” says Kemble.

Also, Kemble says the new viral variants may further slow the race to return to normal life.

The new variants, first identified in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, are quickly spreading to different parts of the world.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 60 cases of the new British variant known as B117 have already appeared in eight American states, and the number is rising.

The CDC says by March the British version could become the predominant variety in the United States.

It is uncertain yet if the new variants are deadlier than the earlier forms of the virus, but the troubling fact is their rate of transmission appears to be 50% higher.

“It is going to be quite a while before we are able to let down our guard.” — Acting state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble

Kemble says the variants make it important to move full speed to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

It is normal for viruses to mutate when they replicate after infecting a human body. Mutations can turn into sub-populations known as variants, such as the new groups concerning health experts now.

The more people getting vaccinated, the fewer chances the virus has to replicate and mutate and possibly become a variant resistant to the current vaccines or that can sneak by undetected in the tests now used to determine if a person is infected with the coronavirus.

Infectious disease specialist Collis says the current vaccines should offer protection against the new variants, and if a variant becomes resistant then drug companies can fairly quickly modify the vaccines to create protection against the new mutations.

He says the drug companies are already modeling in laboratory studies to be prepared to make tweaks if needed to the vaccines. They don’t have to start from scratch.

But a key concern is with the higher level of infectiousness; the new variants could infect more people and escalate the number of people ending up in hospitals and overwhelming medical systems.

“The new variants present a real wrinkle. We just don’t know. Nobody knows. We have to stay on our toes,” Collis said.

COVID-19 vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer will help curb the spread of the respiratory disease. But people must continue wearing masks and taking other precautions for the near future, experts say. Courtesy: Department of Health

The vaccine is our greatest hope even if so much is still unknown about it and the length of its protection.

This may sound preachy, but I say if the vaccine is offered, people should take it to protect not only themselves but their family and friends, all the unvaccinated in the community and, importantly, to slow the spread of the disease before it evolves into possibly more lethal variants.

Epidemiologist Kemble says although most people she speaks with are thankful for the vaccines, a minority has reservations, including a fear the vaccination itself could give them COVID-19.

Kemble says that notion is false because the vaccines given in Hawaii are not made up of a live virus.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna are messenger RNA vaccines. They send a messenger genetic code to instruct cells to make a harmless protein that mimics the spike protein characteristic of the coronavirus.

The body perceives that the virus-like protein is an invader and triggers an immune response that fires up a set of antibodies to protect the body if it should be infected with the coronavirus.

Even if a person contracts the virus later, their symptoms will be mild, says Kemble.

She says the main concern now is getting the needed number of doses of the vaccine to protect the population and to keep in front of the arrival of new variants.

“That has been a real challenge — to get enough vaccine in the state. Now we have to take each day as it comes. It has been a real challenge to know how many doses Hawaii will be getting and when it will be getting them.”

Collis says this year definitely offers more hope than last with a new president and administration that is focused on “a coherent science-based approach to fighting the virus.”

Read this next:

HAWAII VIRUS TRACKER -- Jan. 26: 71 New Infections

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

It’s good to have a vaccine for COVID-19. Though it does not protect us entirely, it’s better than not having protection at all. That’s why we’ll always have to follow the rules, which are wearing a mask, washing our hands frequently, and maintaining social distance. This vaccine will certainly help reduce COVID-19 cases in Hawaii and around the world.  Ultimately, I hope everybody in Hawaii gets the vaccine soon not only for COVID-19 but also for the new virus.

Astral · 2 years ago

It will be a while till we could go back to our normal lives because even with vaccines and the new variants, we still have to take precautions. Such as wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding social gatherings. In order for more people to be more vaccinated we could provide more services to give them out.  

AlyssaJaye · 2 years ago

I agree that the vaccine does provide us some relief as both vaccines provide a 95 percent protection rate. The true test has yet to come, we still don't know how this new variant will affect our vaccines and the protection rate.  The best way to get everyone vaccinated is to ramp up the production of vaccines and provide more clinics with the shots so we can all be vaccinated and get closer to normal life.

Royce · 2 years ago

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