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Hawaii hospitals gearing up to immunize thousands of front-line workers

Hawaii hospitals are gearing up to immunize thousands of health care workers starting next week, following regulatory approval for emergency use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization Friday, triggering widespread distribution of the vaccine as the novel coronavirus rages across the country.

The Queen’s Medical Center is preparing to receive a minimum of 975 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine early next week and will begin to immediately immunize front-line workers, said Jason Chang, president of Queen’s, a designated COVID-19 vaccination hub. A shipment for second doses is expected 21 days later.

“We’re hopeful that we’re going to receive something closer to 5,000 doses in that first shipment” for the Punchbowl and West Oahu campuses, he said.

Queen’s already completed a practice drill on receiving a “mock shipment” of the vaccine directly from Pfizer’s manufacturing plant in Michigan to prepare pharmacy and medical staff to properly handle the drugs, which require minus-60- degree storage.

Employees in the emergency department and those working in COVID-19 and intensive care units are first priority, followed by those with chronic conditions, seniors and then “everyone in the organization after that.” Queen’s has 5,400 employees at Punchbowl, 1,000 at the West Oahu campus, as well as 350 at North Hawaii Community Hospital on Hawaii island and 200 at Molokai General Hospital.

“We’re excited to finally start giving some vaccines,” Chang said. Queen’s is encouraging all employees and physicians to get the shot but is not requiring it. About 90% of Queen’s employees voluntarily get the flu shot, he said.

“But as we’ve done internal polls, it sounds like many people want to get the vaccination but don’t want to get it on the first day,” Chang said, adding that it will likely take two months to immunize the entire organization. “I think many people are cautious and want to see how it’s going to be tolerated. We do believe most of our employees will get the vaccine over the course of the first few months.”

Queen’s has two high- capacity subzero freezers that can store 10,000 to 15,000 doses at any given time for up to six months. A third freezer will be moved to West Oahu with capacity to store 5,000 to 10,000 doses, and a fourth freezer will be used on the Big Island at North Hawaii Community Hospital.

Meanwhile, Hawaii Pacific Health has requested nearly 5,600 doses and is “finalizing plans to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to all health care workers at our clinical facilities.”

“As part of our preparation efforts, we have also identified ultra-cold freezers that have sufficient space and are capable of storing the vaccine at the required temperature at each of our four medical centers” — Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children, Pali Momi Medical Center, Straub Medical Center and Wilcox Medical Center on Kauai.

Smaller hospitals like Kona Community Hospital also have completed trial runs for COVID-19 vaccine clinics to test processes for the large-scale immunization campaigns.

“This allowed us to identify a few gaps and tighten up our processes,” said Lisa Downing, a registered nurse and employee health and infection prevention director at the Kona hospital, which will offer vaccinations to all West Hawaii Region employees, including those at Kona Community Hospital, Kohala Hospital, the Kona Ambulatory Surgery Center and affiliated staff at the Alii Health Center.

Hawaii health officials reported Friday one additional coronavirus death on Oahu — a man in his 50s who had underlying health conditions — and 89 new infections statewide, bringing the totals since the start of the pandemic to 269 fatalities and 18,951 cases.

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