Supply of COVID-19 shots has exceeded demand for the first time in Hawaii, prompting the state to make the unprecedented move of cutting back on the number of doses ordered from the federal government this week.

Health officials warned demand could ebb as vaccine supply grows and those most eager to get inoculated against the respiratory disease have secured appointments.

“Fewer people are rushing to get vaccinated,” Department of Health spokesman Brooks Baehr said Tuesday. “We’ve reached all the low-hanging fruit.”

For the first time since Hawaii clinics began delivering COVID-19 vaccines in December, the Department of Health did not order its entire allotment from the federal government this week. It only asked for 63,860 of the 78,460 doses available, Baehr said.

Syringes containing Pfizer COVID-19 part 1 vaccination at the Queen’s Medical Center press event vaccinating 5 volunteers. December 15, 2020
COVID-19 shots were in high demand earlier this year but appointments started to slow in mid-April. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The drop in demand reflects a nationwide problem. President Joe Biden called on states to make it easier for people to get shots as he set a goal of having 70% of adults receive at least one dose by July 4.

Hawaii has made progress in its vaccination campaign after a slow start due to initial supply problems at the national level.

The Aloha State reached a milestone with 62.57% of its vaccine-eligible population of people at least 16 years old fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to Baehr.

That’s still a far cry from the herd immunity needed to stamp out virus transmission. This week national experts questioned the country’s ability to reach that goal, the New York Times reported.

Fewer Shots In Arms

In March, about 65,000 to 73,000 shots were administered per week, according to Baehr. That reached a peak of about 81,300 shots in the first week in April before falling to 72,000 the week of April 11 and 66,600 the week of April 18.

That decline in interest in mid-April appeared to coincide with the U.S. government’s decision to temporarily halt the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to concerns about rare blood clots.

Hawaii and other states resumed the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week after federal authorities lifted the pause but offered revised recommendations.

A recent Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll found that 75% of approximately 1,500 registered Hawaii voters who responded said they already got the vaccine. Another 12% of respondents said they planned not to get a COVID-19 shot, while 5% wanted to wait and 4% reported feeling undecided.

Those who indicated they were hesitant said they were concerned about the rapid rate of vaccine development and the potential for an adverse reaction, among other reasons.

More than 1.2 million shots have been administered to date in Hawaii. The three COVID-19 vaccines currently available are being distributed with an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Baehr declined to speculate on possible causes of the slowdown but said health department officials believe a significant number of people still intend to get a vaccine but haven’t been able to fit an appointment into their daily schedule yet.

“One theory is that once it opened up to 16 years old and above, the urgency was gone,” he said.

‘Waiting For The Right Time’

He cited DOH surveys that found more than half of those surveyed said they planned to get the vaccine immediately, while another third of respondents were receptive to getting the vaccine “once they got around to it,” he said.

“We think that we’ve reached most everybody who was of the mindset they were going to get it as soon as they possibly could,” he added. “Now we’re in the population of people who are receptive to getting it, but will get it when the time is right. We want people who have been waiting for the right time to get vaccinated to know that the right time is now.”

The chance of reaching herd immunity could be delayed unless demand picks up, according to Hilton Raethel, the president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii. That’s concerning Raethel and other health experts as COVID-19 variants continue to pose a threat of propelling new virus cases even further and more quickly.

Several clinics on neighboring islands have cut their weekly dosage orders down, Raethel said.

Kauai, which had been receiving about 2,340 doses per week, asked for half that this week. Officials in the Big Island region of Kona didn’t ask for any at all because they had not yet used all the vaccines they were allocated last week.

“There is a lack of a sense of urgency for people to get vaccinated, partially I believe because people know they can get vaccinated whenever they choose,” he said. “We would much prefer that people choose sooner rather than later.”

A Kaiser Health News analysis published Tuesday found the pace of new vaccine appointments was on the decline in most states.

The daily rate of first dose administration ranged from 136 per 100,000 in Mississippi to 889 in Rhode Island, it said.

Hawaii is vaccinating people higher than the national rate, according to KHN, administering doses at a rate of 798 people per 100,000.

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