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Editorial: Major development for COVID vaccine

For those on the frontlines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic — and those hit hardest by it — there’s good reason to hope that a vaccine is fast-approaching, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration weighs emergency approval for the two front-runners.

States recently wrapped up preorders for the initial round of shipments for one, the Pfizer vaccine. And last week, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel recommended that the first shots should go to health care workers, and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

While the two-shot vaccination could serve as a “game-changer” in Hawaii and elsewhere, according to state Department of Health (DOH) Director Libby Char, changing the game on a scale large enough to effect so-called herd immunity in the islands — vaccinating 700,000-800,000 residents — is a tall order.

Addressing the Star-Advertiser’s editorial board last week, Char said: “This is the No.1 priority right now for the Department of Health” and will require engaging the “entire community” to get the job done. While there are still unknowns in regard to delivery, the DOH is rightly continuing to build a robust partner strategy with health care providers and pharmacies, local government, nonprofits and others.

While some partners already take part in seasonal influenza shot campaigns, the coming deployment will quickly eclipse that of any recent heavy-lift vaccination effort. Sensibly, Hawaii’s “Tier 1” grouping includes health care workers and people at highest risk for COVID-19 infection. Kupuna are expected to be next in line, with other priorities still being sorted.

Given the stance among key health authorities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics that communities should, as best as possible, get kids back into classrooms, Hawaii should place teachers in an early tier group. Also rating as high priority should be ethnic groups disproportionately affected by the disease, including Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

However, even as the nation is poised to start administering doses, there’s hesitation in some circles to get the shots, due in part to fast-track development and political pushes, such as President Donald Trump’s call earlier this year for a vaccine before the presidential election.

Serving as a confidence booster, though, several drug companies agreed to not submit vaccine candidates for federal review until their safety and efficacy is shown in large clinical trials. And the companies behind the two now up for final scrutiny, Pfizer and Moderna, say their vaccines have been shown to be 95% and 94% effective, respectively.

Moving forward, ramping up messaging about the vaccines, such as providing clear information about safety and access in multiple languages and on multiple media platforms, will be key to securing a large-scale level of participation.

Also among coming challenges: keeping vaccines sufficiently cold. The Pfizer doses must be stored as minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit); and those produced by drugmaker Moderna, minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit). In lieu of loading up on specialized freezers, Char said, dry ice can be used to keep doses at a safe temperature for weeks at a time.

Speaking Friday on “Spotlight Hawaii,” the Star-Advertiser’s webcast, Char stressed that as vaccine plans continue to take shape, we must continue to adhere to public health protocols. Indeed, even as the vaccines arrive and begin to be administered, maintaining vigilance on masking and social distancing will continue to be crucial.

“Everybody’s so tired of hearing about masks and distancing … but it works. We have data showing it works,” Char said. She added: “Especially now we should pull together as a community. … If we all do our part, we can get through this. The vaccine is right around the corner.”

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