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Military in Hawaii starts to vaccinate 16 and up

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The military in Hawaii has started to vaccinate all eligible defense personnel 16 and up and created a drive-thru vaccination center at Wheeler Army Airfield.

Hawaii residents not connected to the military, by comparison, have to be at least 70 to get a vaccination in the current 1B group, unless they are “front-line essential workers.”

The disparity in eligibility comes as the governor of Alaska announced Tuesday that effective immediately, COVID-19 vaccine will be available to all people who live or work in Alaska and are 16 and older — making Alaska the first state in the nation to remove eligibility requirements.

Hawaii has administered at least one dose of vaccine to about 17.6% of its population, with 426,000 total doses administered so far.

Health Department spokesman Brooks Baehr said the state remains constrained by supply. “We’re doing great at getting shots in arms,” he said. “The vaccine comes, we schedule it, and boom, it’s going into your arm.”

However, there are complicating factors — including the fact that “we’re totally blind on the military” vaccination numbers, Baehr said.

The estimated state population is 1.4 million, which includes military in Hawaii. “But the number of vaccines administered by the military is not included in the number we report,” meaning the percentage of those getting vaccinated in the state is actually higher, he said.

Why the military does not share that data with the Health Department was not immediately clear. Tripler Army Medical Center, which acts as a clearinghouse for military vaccine coming into the state, could not be reached late Wednesday.

The civilian vaccine supply side in Hawaii is ramping up, with 40,200 doses received the first week of February compared to 67,280 last week (including 11,900 Johnson &Johnson) and 62,530 this week, Baehr said.

“We’re getting more and more Moderna and more and more Pfizer every week, and very soon, there will be weekly shipments of (Johnson &Johnson),” he said.

Next week’s allotment will be higher than this week’s, although Baehr said he couldn’t yet divulge the number.

But Hawaii also remains in the 1B vaccination tier, which includes 70 and up and “frontline essential workers.”

After that comes 1C, which includes adults 65 to 74, essential workers not recommended for vaccination in 1B, and people 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions.

Finally, “Phase 2” will cover all people 16 and older.

“Whatever vaccinations they (the military) are doing is fantastic because every shot in an arm — whether it’s on base or off base — protects us all,” Baehr said.

Tripler reported having moved through the military’s own Tiers 1B and 1C and now onto “Tier 2 — remaining population.” All eligible beneficiaries 16 and older — except for some active duty — can now schedule their vaccination appointments through the military system. Some service branches are scheduling vaccinations with their units.

Tripler and the Desmond T. Doss Health Clinic at Schofield Barracks moved into 16-and-up vaccinations Monday.

A drive-thru vaccination center at Wheeler for all Tricare beneficiaries including family members, but excluding active duty, started up on March 2, Tripler said.

Baehr said he doesn’t know the specifics of Alaska’s vaccine distribution to individuals 16 and over, but in Hawaii, vaccinations are currently going to “the people who we think are at the highest risk and who we need to continue to function as a society.”

Mobile teams are going into the homes of kupuna.

“We want to protect those people, so instead of just opening up a site and saying, ‘C’mon down,’ we’ve done it in an orderly manner,” he said.

Similarly, the military is “pulling from a different pool” of vaccine than the state. “Let’s hope that if (the military is in the open-eligibility phase) that that means people have accepted the vaccine and they are helping protect Hawaii,” Baehr said. “I hope that it does not mean that they are able to move that quickly because they’re offered vaccine and they have a lower acceptance rate.”

Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, said in late February that he expected vaccine availability to ramp up to the point it would “no longer be a supply-constrained environment. It will be, do we have enough people to vaccinate? Do we have rooms big enough to get the number of people in them to be vaccinated?”

However, Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director for operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told members of Congress that early data pointed to vaccine acceptance rates for serv­ice members “somewhere in the two-thirds territory.”

Military members are not required to get COVID-19 shots because vaccines were approved under “emergency use authorizations” and not after full study.

Place said the one-third of military members who may not be volunteering for the vaccine “aren’t hard over on the ‘no.’ Again, many of them are ‘Not now. How about later?’”

A New York Times analysis shows Hawaii ranking alongside states including Vermont, New Jersey, Minnesota, West Virginia and Nebraska in terms of percentage of total population so far given at least one shot.

Baehr said it will be “very soon” that Hawaii moves to the 1C vaccination group. “We have said we can do between 80,000 and 100,000 (vaccinations) a week. So give us 80 to 100,000 a week and we’ll bang this thing out.”

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