Even as Hawaii prepares to receive 81,825 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to begin immunizing health care workers, employees won’t be required to take the shots.
A U.S. government advisory panel Thursday endorsed widespread emergency use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine in adults and teenagers 16 and older. Under emergency use authorization, health care organizations will not require their workers to get immunized, Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said at a media briefing on the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.
“There are hospitals across the country who do require flu vaccines, and it’s a mandatory requirement for nurses … or other front-line health care workers, but again that is because the flu shots have received full FDA approval. Once these vaccines do receive full FDA approval … employers in general do have the option at that point in time of requiring the vaccine in order to continue work.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to take at least another three to seven months before granting full approval of the coronavirus vaccine, he said.
The state Department of Health made its initial trial order for 4,875 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Friday as cases surged throughout the country. Coronavirus deaths reached an all-time one-day high of more than 3,100 on Wednesday.
“This vaccine is an important layer of protection in addition to appropriate use of PPE (personal protective equipment) and preventative efforts such as mask-wearing and social distancing by the community,” Raethel said. “We continue to work on and finalize plans to distribute and administer the vaccines to health care workers across the state. This is a historic event, and we look forward to participating in this public health initiative to further protect the people of Hawaii from COVID-19.”
Pfizer has said it will have about 25 million doses of the two-shot vaccine for the U.S. by the end of December, though initial supplies will be limited and reserved primarily for health care workers and nursing home residents.
Health Director Libby Char said the state is expecting 45,825 initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 36,000 initial doses of the Moderna product, which federal authorities will consider next week for emergency use authorization.
“We remain in a public health emergency because of the COVID pandemic,” she said. “While the vaccine offers hope to eradicate this pandemic, we can’t let our guard down.”
She added, ”It’s not going to be forced on anybody, but it’s going to be available to people who want it.”
The state hopes to get as much as 60% to 70% of the population vaccinated to reach so-called herd immunity by mid-2021. The DOH expects most residents will be able to get a second shot of the vaccine — which requires two doses, 28 days apart — in the latter half of next year.
The first batch of vaccines could arrive “as early as next week,” according to Gov. David Ige.
“Today marks a hopeful moment in the fight against this pandemic,” he said. “This pandemic has cost Hawaii residents so much: the lives of their loved ones, our health and our economic security. A vaccine is a vital step in keeping our situation from becoming worse, and it is the beginning of our path to recovery.”
The doses being sent are meant to be used for a first round of vaccinations, with a second round scheduled to be sent in the future.
“This may be the largest immunization campaign in the history of our state,” Ige added. “I trust the science, and plan to be vaccinated as soon as I am able and my place in line comes up.”
Health officials reported two additional coronavirus deaths and 123 new infections statewide, bringing the totals since the start of the pandemic to 268 fatalities and 18,864 cases. The two latest deaths were Oahu men with underlying health conditions — one in his 50s and the other in his 70s.
The Health Department also recorded the first positive case of COVID-19 in an adult resident of Kalaupapa Settlement — the home for individuals who were forced to relocate under Hawaii laws mandating the isolation of Hansen’s disease patients — in Kalawao County on Molokai. The individual received the positive test result after returning on a local flight to Kalaupapa on Molokai’s north shore, and is in self-isolation with no symptoms, the DOH said. Kalawao County was reportedly the last county within the U.S. with no confirmed positive COVID-19 cases.
“I understand people are rightfully worried about how COVID has affected us all. It has incredible impact on our society. This offers a new tool for us,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green. “I know people worry about vaccines. (But) I wouldn’t put my family through something if I didn’t have faith in it. I believe it will help us in a hopeful way move back to our normal lives, which seems so long ago.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.