After months of endless infections, mounting deaths and economic collapse, Hawaii residents may finally see the light at the end of an agonizing tunnel.
Dr. Lester Morehead, a hospitalist in the Queen’s Medical Center COVID-19 unit, was the first in the islands to receive the new Pfizer coronavirus vaccine since it was approved last week for emergency use in the U.S.
“I’m honored. I want others to get it too,” Morehead said after receiving the first shot. “It’s very fair to be concerned, but I’m confident in the science. I believe in it and I assure you we need to end this and this is the best way we can do it. My biggest fear is that people won’t get the vaccine.”
Hawaii received its first delivery of COVID-19 vaccines Monday, in what health experts hope will mark a turning point in the state’s battle against the coronavirus, which has sickened nearly 20,000 people and left 274 dead.
The Queen’s Medical Center received a shipment of 975 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and began immunizing the first five front-line workers — Morehead, two nurses, a respiratory therapist and housekeeping aid — and will ramp up immunizations on Wednesday, when another 3,900 doses are expected to arrive.
“It is a momentous day. Yesterday when we received … the vials of the vaccine, I had tears of joy. It is the first time we see hope as we think about battling this devastating disease,” said Jill Hoggard Green, president and CEO of The Queen’s Health Systems. “We have seen far too much suffering and pain. This gives us a chance to move ahead and get on offense instead of battling the disease from behind.”
Nearly 45,000 more Pfizer vaccines are slated to be shipped to the state this month in addition to 36,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine by year’s end, pending approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Tripler Army Medical Center received Tuesday its first shipment of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine and will start giving inoculations Wednesday.
Deborah Lichota, a registered nurse in Queen’s medical intensive care unit and one of the first to get the shots, was relieved to finally see a solution for a long and exhausting pandemic.
“It has been very exhausting and challenging on numerous levels because we as nurses want to save and protect lives and there have been times where we’re at our patients’ bedsides holding their hands when it should be their families and loved ones with them,” she said. “We’ve seen the detrimental outcomes of what this disease does. We’ve seen people who were once very strong become just a fraction of the person that they were and we need to get ahold of this.”
For “nonbelievers” or anti-vaccine advocates who refuse to get immunized, Lichota said she wishes “they could see the loss of someone’s light” when they develop severe complications of the virus.
“I have been there when somebody is just gasping in order to say their name and we are rushing to give them everything to be able to give them life,” she added. “There are long-term effects that are going to haunt these people forever.”
Charlene Pang, a registered nurse in the infectious disease unit, said the feelings of emotion and stress have been overwhelming for front-line workers.
“These patients come in and they’re very, very sick. Some of them can’t breathe and we’re at the front-line … trying to help them and do everything we can so that they can get better. Some of them don’t, they suffer, (and) some of them die,” she said. “I just hope that many other employees and people decide to get the vaccine. I mean if we can help to save one life, that’s all it’s going to take.”
Hawaii health officials reported 57 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 19,480 cases. The state’s official COVID-19 death toll remains at 274 with no new deaths reported.
Ongoing outbreaks have kept Oahu in Tier 2 of Honolulu’s four-tier economic recovery plan. Though Mayor Kirk Caldwell had hoped to move into the less-restrictive Tier 3 by Christmas, rising numbers — partly due to an outbreak at the Halawa Correctional Facility — will continue to restrict residents from gathering in groups of more than five. Caldwell said Tuesday that he’s asked the state not to include Halawa prisoners as part of Oahu’s case count.
Despite ongoing restrictions, health-care workers say the vaccine brings hope to Hawaii.
“For us when we see this as the light at the end of the tunnel, it is,” Lichota said. “We saw it 100 years ago with the flu pandemic how it wiped out people. Fifty-plus years ago we had polio. Then we were able to find a cure for that and that’s where we’re at right now. We need to continue to push through and encourage people to get the vaccine because … we’ve seen what it can do for our population and to prevent diseases that can be so detrimental and deadly.”