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Editorial: Vaccinations key to herd immunity

In a state survey conducted in the weeks immediately preceding the mid-December start of Hawaii’s vaccine rollout, only half of the nearly 3,500 respondents indicated they would take the COVID-19 vaccination. However, it’s reassuring that the report also noted: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that vaccine acceptance has increased since and will continue to increase over time.”

With the surfacing of coronavirus variants and other concerns, vaccination is not an absolute magic bullet against the dreaded disease. It is, however, an essential weapon in our ongoing effort to overcome the coronavirus pandemic — along with virus-fighting public health protocols including mask-wearing, physical distancing and hand-washing.

Some vaccine skepticism is understandable, given Operation Warp Speed’s fast-track development and unknown long-term effectiveness. The arrival of the front-runner vaccines in less than a year after the pandemic began crushed the previous development record of four years, which was for the mumps vaccine.

Serving as a confidence booster, though, last fall several drug companies agreed to not submit vaccine candidates for federal review until their safety and efficacy was proved in large clinical trials. And the companies behind the two vaccines now in wide distribution in the United States, Pfizer and Moderna, found their vaccines to be highly effective, with rare side effects.

Since the first week of distribution in Hawaii, when slightly more than 3,460 doses were administered, the count of vaccinations has been steadily ramping up. Upon closing out the six-week mark last month, upwards of 106,650 vaccines had been administered.

That increase signals encouraging progress toward reducing overall risk of infection here. Still, it should be noted that many of those in the front-of-the-line “tier” groupings, including health care workers and people at highest risk for infection, had little hesitation about getting inoculated, partly due to their high-risk status.

As the state now preps to offer shots to the much-larger population swaths in lower-risk tiers, it must also ramp up its public communications effort. Providing effective messaging that emphasizes clear medical information about safety as well as easy-to-access guidance on how to secure a vaccination appointment must be available in multiple languages and on multiple media platforms.

Hawaii has long maintained a ranking among the states with the lowest per capita count of COVID-19 cases. However, a red flag was raised last week when Hawaii was ranked among the states with the fastest spread of the virus — a rate based on the average number of people who became sick from an infectious person.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green recently reiterated his expectation that herd immunity — some 900,000 fully vaccinated individuals across the islands — is likely reachable by midsummer, and noted that President Joe Biden’s announcement last week of a plan to use the Defense Production Act as means to spur a more-predictable flow of vaccine deliveries in greater quantities will serve as welcome assist.

Of course, not everyone can get the current two-dose offering. Officials say anyone having an allergic (anaphylaxis) response to the first dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines is ineligible for a second. Also, children under age 16 must wait for further vaccine development; and pregnant or nursing mothers and patients undergoing some medical treatments should first check with their doctors.

Still, the statewide count of those eligible likely approaches the high-percentage level needed for herd immunity. While this sort of community shielding against any disease is not bulletproof, we must push hard collectively to achieve its payoff of significantly lowering the threat of community spread.

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