Nearly 12,000 doses of the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine are en route to Hawaii this week, boosting a state-run vaccination campaign beset by delays from inclement weather and national supply shortages.

Hawaii health regulators said Monday that the single-shot vaccine will be distributed across the islands and put to immediate use when it lands in the next few days. The health department also expects to receive 28,080 doses of Pfizer vaccines and 27,300 doses of Moderna vaccines, which have been in use since mid-December.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on Saturday, offers a logistical advantage from the other two because it only requires one shot and can be safely kept in an ordinary refrigerator for three months.

People get outside for fresh air and exercise with face masks at Magic Island in Honolulu, HI, Saturday, April 25, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
The arrival of a new coronavirus vaccine option from Johnson & Johnson is expected to boost the state’s capacity to inoculate residents more quickly. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

While it is only 66% effective at protecting people from mild to moderate cases of COVID-19, the shot is highly effective at preventing severe disease or death.

The two-shot vaccines authorized for emergency use by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are about 95% effective, but they require a booster shot three or four weeks after the initial dose, depending on the manufacturer.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the new vaccine would provide a choice that may be more desirable to people who have so far declined to get inoculated, but he stressed the state wasn’t changing its priority system.

Currently, only Hawaii residents who are front-line or other essential workers or over the age of 75 are eligible to be vaccinated.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee is expected to issue recommendations on who should be prioritized to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as opposed to other options, according to the state Department of Health. 

“It doesn’t mean that what you want will be available right at that moment,” Green told Civil Beat on Monday. “But if you really want to get the Pfizer vaccine and we have Johnson & Johnson available in the short term, you can either take the Johnson & Johnson or wait a week until more supply comes in for the Pfizer.”

Health Department spokesman Brooks Baehr said the DOH will announce a plan for how it will use the Johnson & Johnson vaccines after the CDC publishes its guidance.

“Everyone can choose the vaccine that is right for them,” he said in a text message. “Vaccine demand is much greater than supply. This means a person may have to wait until the vaccine of their choice is available, but eventually everyone will have access to the product they prefer.”

Logistical Advantages

Federal regulators cautioned Hawaii officials that the state may only receive a few thousand doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines in the second shipment set to arrive next week due to manufacturing lags, according to Green. After that, subsequent batches sent to Hawaii should have larger amounts of vaccine.

“We expect a burst here in the first week, like the rest of the country, and then it will be quiet,” Green said. “Then it will ramp up.”

By the end of June, state leaders anticipate Hawaii will receive approximately 300,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. If this expectation materializes, Green said Hawaii should be well on its way to vaccinating the vast majority of Hawaii residents by early summer.

A one-and-done vaccine also would relieve the state’s burden of having to track people during the interval between their first and second doses and reduce the resources required to schedule people for their second appointment. 

“I know it will be a lot easier to get this vaccine out to people,” Green said. “To get one shot and be done is a very simple process, so I think a lot of people will choose to take it for that reason.”

Green said he anticipates that health care workers and others who are eligible to get a shot in the arm but haven’t done so may be more willing to agree to the easier one-step process with the arrival of doses from Johnson & Johnson.

But he recommended that kupuna and people with underlying health conditions opt for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines since they offer more overall protection.

More than 14% of Hawaii residents have received at least the first dose of a vaccine, amounting to 336,901 administered doses as of Friday. But for now, the national vaccine shortage continues to hamper the state’s efforts to inoculate the vast majority of adults.

Health officials in Hawaii, and many other states, insist they have the capacity to ramp up vaccinations but have been unable to schedule more appointments because of uncertainty over when and if they’ll receive new doses from the federal government.

Along with its first batch of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the Health Department said another 10,380 vaccine doses, in addition to the 67,280, are expected to ship directly to Longs drugstores in Hawaii as part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.

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