Hawaii has distributed more than 180,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and that appears to be slowing infections, according to the head of the hospital association.
“It’s already reducing illness and disease in our state and hospitalizations, which is great news,” said Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, adding that first-priority nursing homes across the nation are also seeing fewer infections and hospitalizations. The state received its first doses of the vaccine in mid-December. “Even the first dose gives a level of immunity.”
The state is vaccinating high-risk health care workers in hospitals and nursing and care home staff and residents, as well as those over the age of 75, some of whom have already received the second of the two-dose regimen. In some areas of the state, lower-priority groups also have begun to get shots. The state is administering 5,000 to 10,000 doses a day across the islands.
“The less people infected, the less end up in hospitals and the less people are going to die,” Raethel said. “It is already having an impact on the infection rate and hospitalization rate. It probably will end up having an impact on the death rate relatively soon.”
COVID-19 hospitalizations are also dropping because the state is well past the infectious period following holiday gatherings, he said.
Health officials reported two new coronavirus deaths — two men in their 70s with underlying health conditions — and 107 additional infections, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 416 fatalities and 26,187 cases.
Fifty-five patients with the virus were in Hawaii hospitals as of Wednesday morning. That compares with around 120 about a month ago.
However, coronavirus mutations emerging across the globe — and in the United States — are alarming local health officials racing to immunize as many residents as possible. The Department of Health’s State Laboratories Division is warning the public that a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom may be circulating in the islands. The state lab identified four specimens that may be the U.K. variant, in addition to nine samples of a less threatening Denmark strain found last week.
“The more variants there are, the higher the probability the current vaccines will not cover all these variants,” Raethel said. “That’s why we really are in this race to get people vaccinated so that we can minimize the amount of variants that will occur. That reduces the spread of the disease and the potential for the virus to mutate.”
Dr. Melinda Ashton, executive vice president and chief quality officer at Hawaii Pacific Health, parent company of Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children, Pali Momi Medical Center, Straub Medical Center and Wilcox Health on Kauai, said the rapidly spreading strains are “worrisome.”
“We know to effectively interrupt transmission, we need a much higher level of herd immunity than we have so far. We really have to be vaccinating the group of people who are having the infections, and I don’t know if we are effectively doing that,” she said. “It’s great that we’re getting vaccinations done, it’s great that the infection rate is down. It would be great if we look back and say one caused the other, but I think it’s too early to declare victory.”