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Rollout of thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine vials marks a major milestone in the battle against the virus

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Thousands of doses of freezer-packed COVID-19 vaccine vials are slated to arrive in Hawaii today, with the first of the two shot series expected to be given to health care workers as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.

It’s the moment Hawaii has been waiting for since the state reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 6. Tough business and travel restrictions and increased mask compliance have helped Hawaii achieve the nation’s lowest COVID-19 counts and deaths, but it’s come with high economic and social costs.

Hawaii health officials Sunday reported three additional coronavirus-related deaths on Oahu and 90 new infections statewide, bringing the totals since the start of the pandemic to 274 fatalities and 19,235 cases. The U.S. coronavirus death toll was nearing 300,000 Sunday, with infection cases topping 16 million since the start of the pandemic; the worldwide death toll is more than 1.6 million with more than 72 million total confirmed infections.

The rollout of the Pfizer vaccine, the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is a major milestone in the battle to upend the medically and economically deadly virus. Still, it’s not a swift panacea, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday that it would likely be July before Hawaii approaches normalcy. Green said it could take six to eight months for the state to vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity — the point when the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack COVID-19 immunity is low.

Green said some 5,000 to 12,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were likely to arrive in Hawaii today with delivery overseen by officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health.

“They’ll check temperatures and the quality of the packaging and make sure there is no damage,” he said. “They’ll coordinate with The Queen’s Medical Center, which will be the main site for the first batches.”

Green said more doses are coming from Pfizer, with the expectation that other drug companies will follow. The Associated Press has reported that the Moderna vaccine will be reviewed by an expert panel next week and could be allowed for public use soon afterward.

The first COVID-19 shots arriving in Hawaii — phase 1-A — will go to health care workers and all the support systems around health care workers, and then nursing home and long-term care facilities, Green said.

In phase 1-B, the vaccine will go to essential workers who have higher probabilities of COVID-19 exposure, such as teachers, firefighters, police, other first responders and the like, Green said. In phase 1-C, the vaccine will go to people over age 65, he said.

Green said it will could take up to two months just to get through 1-A alone because the distribution group is large and the doses will come in rolling shipments. However, he expects distribution to groups in 1-B and 1-C could run parallel to 1-A, provided enough vaccinations are available.

Green said he hopes that phase 2 could get COVID-19 vaccines to people with chronic illnesses or other vulnerabilities by spring. Everyone else will have to wait for phase 3 of the distribution, he said.

Green said the overall goal is to vaccinate 70% of Hawaii’s population.

It’s still unclear how many Hawaii residents will take the vaccination, which can’t be mandated while under emergency use authorization. A survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about half of Americans want to get the vaccine as soon as possible. The Associated Press reported another quarter aren’t sure, while the remaining quarter say they aren’t interested. Some simply oppose vaccines in general. Others are concerned that the vaccines have been rushed, and want to see how the rollout goes.

The FDA has determined that the vaccines are safe but has instructed providers not to give it to those with a known history of severe allergic reactions to any of its ingredients, due to reports that U.K. regulators are investigating several severe allergic reactions.

Green said widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is still many months out, especially given that it hasn’t even been approved yet for children under age 16.

“Less than 5% of our population has had COVID, so we’re capable of having hot spots,” Green said.

Still, he said in three or four months’ time, Hawaii could start to see some benefits from the start of “putting up fences around risky populations.”

“Each week that passes, our risk should decrease slightly. The worry that I have is that people will make a mistake and work under the false assumption that we can stop wearing masks and stop socially distancing sooner rather than later,” Green said. “I’m not saying that we won’t begin to relax some of the requirements, but we won’t be fully safe until we have herd immunity.”

In the interim, he said, Hawaii must stay the course by reminding residents and visitors to wear a mask, wash their hands and watch their distance.

“We are doing really well. (Sunday’s) case count was 90. (Saturday’s) count gave people a little pause because it was higher, but 63 of those (198) new cases were associated with Halawa Correctional Facility,” Green said. “We’ve been fluctuating with a seven-day average in the 90s mostly, gradually reflecting lower cases and hospitalizations in the last several weeks.”

Health officials counted 4,851 COVID-19 new test results, for a 1.7% statewide positivity rate.

Sunday’s new statewide infection cases reported by the Health Department include 58 on Oahu, 10 on the Big Island, eight on Maui, four on Kauai and 10 Hawaii resident diagnosed outside the state. As a result of updated information, three cases on Oahu were removed from the counts, officials said.

The statistics released Sunday reflect the new cases reported to the department through 11:59 p.m. Friday.

According to the latest information from the department’s Hawaii COVID-19 data dashboard, 58 patients with the virus were in Hawaii hospitals as of noon Friday, with 21 in intensive care units and 17 on ventilators.

Green said the start of vaccinations won’t entirely solve Hawaii’s COVID-19 issues, but it will change the “trajectory of the disease and the response.”

When that happens, Green said, Hawaii will be able to focus more on vaccinations and masks and less on tests and daily case counts.

Green said he’s not as concerned about COVID spikes during Valentine’s Day and Easter as he is about Christmas, but said he thought Hawaii would be fine if people were as responsible as they were over Thanksgiving.

“If we do really well, Fourth of July could be normal again.”

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