About 600 military veterans went in waves to get shots in arms throughout the day Saturday as the Department of Veterans Affairs Pacific Island Healthcare System held the first in a series of mass COVID-19 vaccinations.
The veterans had to be at least 60 years old, be in a high risk health category or be an essential worker to make an appointment at the Keehi Lagoon Memorial event.
That gave many of them their first opportunity to get the vaccine since the state is only offering vaccines to first-responders and others who are at least 70 according to the general priority system. They will get their second doses in a follow-up event.
Army veteran Francis Ouye, 73, said he hopes the vaccinations will allow life to return to normal soon so he can visit Southeast Asia.
“I feel very fortunate that the VA provides this service to us,” he said after receiving his shot. “I’m looking forward to everyone getting vaccinated so that I can travel.”
Winter storms on the mainland disrupted the supply chain of vaccines to the island last week, explained VA Pacific Island Healthcare System Assistant Director Katherine Kalama.
“As our supply increases, we need to increase our throughput. Bottom line is that the VA goal is to put as many vaccines in veterans’ arms as we can,” Kalama said. “We’ll be doing many more of these events in the future.”
Kalama said they hope to hold the next event in Kapolei and are trying to coordinate with the National Guard to use one of their facilities there.
The VA Pacific Island Healthcare System is unique in that it’s responsible for veterans throughout Hawaii as well as the Pacific Island territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas. But it has no dedicated facilities of its own, instead relying on partnerships with military and civilian hospitals and clinics across the region.
Amy Rohlfs, a VA spokeswoman, said that has posed additional challenges for vaccination efforts in terms of finding locations that could accommodate large scale efforts.
On Oahu, the VA operates in the same guarded compound as Tripler Army Medical Center, which can be hard to access for some veterans. The hospital recently got funding for badly needed new parking facilities from Congress. However the VA has expanded its clinic hours for those able to make it there for vaccinations.
Rohlfs also said it was difficult to schedule appointments for those with jobs, but holding a mass event simplified the process. “This is like stop-and-go easy,” she said of the mass vaccination.
However, it wasn’t a drop-in vaccination event — every veteran had to register in advance due to limited supplies. Anyone interested has to be a registered patient with the VA Pacific Island Healthcare System.
“That’s really important that there’s coordination with these guys,” said Dr. Chaz Baritz, the Pacific Island System’s top pharmacist. He oversees the storage and transportation of the vaccines to facilities and to patients across the region.
At the event Saturday they kept the vaccines in powered refrigerated bags that can keep the vaccine cold for up to five days.
“We’re using them today to transport,” said Baritz. “These vials are good 12 hours out of the refrigerator at room temperature and (up to) puncture so for today’s event we don’t really need to keep them chilled, but we just like to have that practice.”
The bags have played a much larger role in transporting the vaccine to veterans on the neighbor islands.
“We are transporting the vaccine to our most rural areas. We’re going to each one of our islands to ensure that all of our veterans have an opportunity,” said Kalama. “We’re going to continue to do that until everybody’s vaccinated.”
The VA Pacific Island System has also continued vaccinations in the other Pacific Island territories and is working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to administer vaccinations not just to veterans but to civilians in American Samoa.
While scarce supplies has meant a fierce competition over who gets to be vaccinated first, the next challenge will be persuading vaccine skeptics to get inoculated.
Ouye hopes everybody will get the vaccine when offered, either “for themselves or for the next person.”
To date, the VA Pacific Island Healthcare System said it has vaccinated 1,070 employees and more than 6,280 veterans across the region.
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