Maui resident Kanani Puou, 34, knows the damage COVID-19 can do. Her brother had to stay home from work for two months when he fell ill after catching the coronavirus.

But Puou, a University of Hawaii Maui student, said she has no plans to take the vaccine any time soon. As a diabetic cancer survivor, Puou is wary of having an adverse reaction.

“I feel that it hasn’t been fully tested yet,” she said. “I already have underlying health conditions so I don’t know how it’s going to affect me.”

Pharmacist Davis Zheng fill syringe with Moderna COVID19 vaccine at Craigside Place carehome part of the plan to vaccinate the elderly. January 5, 2021.
COVID-19 vaccines are being administered with special permission for emergency use by federal health authorities. Some respondents of Civil Beat’s poll felt it was too early to take the vaccines. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Approximately 75% of the 1,500 respondents of the latest Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll indicated they already got the vaccine. Puou was among the 12% of respondents who said they would not do so. Another 5% wanted to wait, and 4% said they weren’t sure about getting vaccinated for COVID-19.

Civil Beat followed up with some of those who indicated in the survey they’d be willing to share their thoughts in interviews.

Among their many concerns was the speed at which the vaccines were developed and the potential for an adverse reaction. Their hesitancy is fueled further by mistrust in government officials and the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured the vaccines.

“If people really want it they can take it. To each his own,” Puou said. “I don’t think anyone should be forced to take it.”

The poll, which was conducted April 16-21, sampled 1,506 registered voters across the islands. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

The survey used interactive voice response technology via landline telephones and cell phones and was combined with more survey questions and answers collected online.

The three COVID-19 vaccines currently on the U.S. market — with more than 1.2 million shots in arms in Hawaii — are being distributed with an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which began distribution late last year, require two doses a few weeks apart for maximum protection, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only needs a single shot.

Federal health authorities maintain that while allergic reactions are possible, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and are the best option to prevent serious illness or death from the respiratory disease that has killed more than 3 million people worldwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System keeps track of side effects and reactions. A clinical review of death certificates, autopsies and medical records found no evidence that vaccination contributed to patient deaths.

Yet 41-year-old Maui resident Daniel Smith, who works in the retail sales industry, feels wary of possible side effects and even death. News of rare brain blood clots and other allergic reactions heightened his concern.

In mid-April, the U.S. government paused the distribution of the J&J vaccine out of an “abundance of caution” while investigators conducted a safety review when several women developed blood clots after receiving a dose.

Hawaii and other states resumed the administration of the J&J vaccine last week after federal authorities lifted the pause while offering a revised recommendation that the vaccine be taken by people 18 or older and include additional warnings and precautions, especially for women under 50.

To Smith, vaccines are still “experimental” and lack a track record.

On top of that, he said he is tired and frustrated by mixed messages. A year of flip-flopping guidance — even from the officials in the highest levels of government —  is part of the reason he has lost trust. He cited the evolution of mask wearing guidance as a primary example.

Hilton Raethel, the president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, worries that vaccine hesitancy may be slowing the state’s vaccine rollout and in turn, threatening Hawaii’s chances of reaching herd immunity.

“That sense of complacency is a real concern to us,” he said. When asked which groups were holding out most, Raethel said the people who need to get vaccinated “run the gamut” across all age groups.

The number of vaccinations needed to reach herd immunity, meaning enough people have been vaccinated or exposed to prevent the virus from whipping through populations at high rates, has yet to be agreed upon by health experts. Estimates range from 60% to more than 80%.

On Monday, the New York Times reported experts are growing even more pessimistic that herd immunity will be reached at all in the United States.

“We’re told things as if they are gospel truth. And then those things change a week or a few months later,” Smith said. “All these other recommendations are constantly changing and they’ve reached a point where they’re no longer trustworthy, they’re definitely not accountable.”

The primary reason Smith’s decided not to get a shot is because he feels the risks of vaccine-related complications are higher than what he’d face if he caught COVID-19.

“It is unnecessary in my opinion,” he said.

A screenshot from the Department of Health Website shows COVID-19 vaccine distribution by age. 

Despite these concerns, in general Hawaii has made strides in its vaccine rollout, with nearly half of the state’s population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and an estimated 40% are fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health.

Those figures put Hawaii ahead of many other states, according to a Bloomberg analysis, which as of the end of April had calculated the Aloha State had 45.2% of its population covered — higher than the national rate of coverage.

Dave Kisor, a retired U.S. Forest Service worker, lives in Puna on Hawaii island. Like Smith, Kisor will not take the vaccine primarily due to concerns about potential side effects, no matter what other health risks are posed by COVID-19 itself.

Kisor also feels disgusted by the profits being made by some pharmaceutical companies and their shareholders.

“It’s all just magical mumbo jumbo that they want us to believe: here we are, we’re your saviors but all they are doing is making a massive profit,” he said.

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