Hawaii’s state health director said Thursday she is optimistic the Aloha State is on track to offer a COVID-19 vaccine to everyone by May, meeting a goal set by President Biden for the nation.

Starting Monday, clinics will accept vaccine appointments from people age 60 and older — marking a new expansion to the age-based eligibility pool.

Assuming the islands receive about 70,000 doses weekly and upcoming shipments will include the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Hawaii could meet the goal to offer the vaccine to everyone eligible by the end of April or early May, said Dr. Libby Char, the director of the Department of Health.

“The bottom line is I think we’re on track if we get a steady supply of vaccines,” she told lawmakers at a public informational briefing held by the state House of Representatives. “Remember we don’t need to vaccinate everyone in every category before we open up to more people.”

Norman Jonithan receives his COVID-19 vaccination from Registered Nurse Jolana Gollero at Lighthouse Outreach Center in Waipahu. March 24, 2021
A recent vaccine event at the Lighthouse Outreach Center in Waipahu was hosted by the Department of Health to provide vaccines to those most affected by the pandemic so far, including Filipino and Pacific Islander communities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Gov. David Ige offered a slightly more conservative message Wednesday in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight segment:

“I do think we’re on track to meet the president’s goal,” he said. “It might be a week or two later, but the vaccinations are going real well.”

Hawaii is currently in the first stages of phase 1c of the vaccine rollout, which includes almost 500,000 people — about half of the state’s population of people 16 and older.

The health department and clinics are prioritizing certain groups, including people 60 and older starting next week, as well as those with severe respiratory disease who are on oxygen or who require dialysis or are undergoing chemotherapy or other infusion therapy.

About 1.1 million Hawaii residents are 16 and older and approved to be vaccinated.

Vaccines for health workers, long-term care facilities and residential care homes, public transit workers, corrections officers, government workers, educators, grocery store and U.S. Postal Service employees are still underway.

The next eligible groups are workers in banking and finance, construction and retail industries, according to Char.

People who work in banking and finance, construction and retail sectors will be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines next, according to a screenshot of Dr. Libby Char’s presentation to the Hawaii Legislature Thursday. Department of Health

By Phase 2, all residents older than 16 will be eligible.

Char said Hawaii’s targeted approach has been successful compared to other states.

“We’ve been fairly methodical and I know we’ve been criticized a fair amount for it. I think we’re doing OK, though,” she said. “This is the approach we’ve chosen and it seems to be working fairly well for us. The pace is just going to start picking up faster and faster.”

As of Thursday, the state had delivered 568,000 doses and a federal retail pharmacy program has administered an estimated 120,000 doses. Char said the federally contracted retailers, such as CVS Longs and Safeway pharmacies, get a portion of doses from each allotment, but the health department is not privy to data about their distribution.

“It’s good because it’s vaccine in our state but it’s tough because it’s not vaccine that we can allocate,” Char said.

Essential workers make up a large portion of the current eligibility pool. Char said the health department has closed its online registration for companies and organizations that employ essential workers. Those companies are encouraged to schedule vaccines directly with providers.

There are more than a dozen places to get a vaccine, depending on your eligibility. Some, like pharmacies, have multiple locations.

The health department is working on opening more vaccine clinics across the islands, Char said, especially in rural areas.

Due to the variety of medical conditions that can worsen COVID-19 infections, Hawaii is opting to broaden eligibility by age, DOH Director Dr. Libby Char said. 

Neighbor islands will likely complete their vaccine campaigns quickly because of their smaller populations, she said.

Due to the wide array of chronic illnesses and conditions that have been found to increase risk for COVID-19 complications, the state is standing by its decision to broaden eligibility by 5 or 10-year age increments, she said.

“Rather than listing different illnesses and saying — OK, if you have diabetes or sickle cell disease, or you got a solid organ transplant, you’re up now — instead it makes sense to open the invitation for appointments based on age and that should correlate pretty well with the underlying medical conditions,” she said.

Join us for a virtual conversation about the COVID-19 vaccine effort in Hawaii, featuring state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble:

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