Hawaii health officials said the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval Monday of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine will likely help boost vaccination rates in the state.
The long-awaited approval is seen by many as a step forward in convincing more residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as cases continue to skyrocket due to the highly contagious delta variant.
“This morning, the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (for people ages 16 and older),” the state Department of Health said Monday on its social media platforms. “While millions of people have already safely received COVID-19 vaccines, this announcement reaffirms that the vaccine is safe and effective.”
The Health Department added that the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines remain safe and effective vaccine options as well, and that “there are more reasons than ever to get vaccinated to protect yourself and your family.”
On Monday the department reported 571 new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 56,670 cases. On Sunday the state reached an all-time single-day high of 893 new coronavirus cases.
The statewide, seven- day average of new cases reached 671 Monday, with a positivity rate of 8.3%.
As of Monday, 62% of Hawaii’s population had completed COVID-19 vaccinations, while 70.3% received at least one dose. DOH reported a total of 1,829,974 COVID vaccine doses had been administered, about 9,400 more than Friday.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green posted the words “full approval” with a shaka emoji to his Facebook page with the news Monday morning.
On Friday’s Spotlight Hawaii, the Honolulu Star- Advertiser’s livestream program, Green said he believed, based on polls, that full FDA approval of the vaccine would prompt another 100,000 residents to get vaccinated.
Vaccination rates in the state had been on a slight uptick in the four weeks prior to the FDA approval of Pfizer, according to DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr.
A total of 23,136 COVID vaccination shots were administered in the seven-day period prior to Friday, nearly 300 more than the prior week ending Aug. 13. In the week ending Aug. 6, about 20,000 doses were administered, and only 14,670 the week ending July 30.
A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 3 in 10 unvaccinated adults said they would be more likely to get vaccinated if one of the vaccines currently authorized for emergency use were to receive full FDA approval.
However, KFF noted, two-thirds of adults, including a majority of unvaccinated adults, were also unsure of or believed the currently available U.S. vaccines already had full FDA approval. This “likely suggests that FDA approval is a proxy for general safety concerns.”
DOH director Dr. Elizabeth Char said she hopes the FDA approval will help get more residents vaccinated.
“When we ask people who haven’t been fully vaccinated why, a lot of them are saying they thought it was a little too soon or they didn’t have enough confidence … even some claims that the vaccine was experimental,” said Char during a news conference Monday. “So I’m really hopeful for those people, this will make a difference for them. I would remind everybody this is the most studied, scrutinized, tracked vaccine in the history of mankind. We know it’s safe, we know it works. It keeps people from severe illness, from hospitalization, from death.”
The full FDA approval is also expected to pave the way for more Hawaii businesses to move ahead with vaccine mandates.
Some major companies, including Hawaiian Electric, Hawaiian Airlines, First Hawaiian Bank and Bank of Hawaii, have already announced they would require proof of vaccination or regular testing of employees.
Labor attorney Anna Elento-Sneed said the approval is what many Hawaii businesses had been waiting for.
“One of the objections is whether or not they would get whistleblower claims from people who thought they were being forced to take an emergency use authorization vaccine, and that’s no longer the case,” she said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of employers, given the situation with the delta variant, opting for mandatory testing.”
Although every company, small to large, will have to do its own risk assessment, she said it removes that one concern about whether the vaccines are safe for regular use.
The University of Hawaii is keeping its current vaccination and testing policy in place for the fall semester, according to spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.
UH over the summer announced it would not enforce its vaccine mandate due to the lack of full FDA approval, and since it had not happened in the weeks leading up to the start of classes Monday, unvaccinated students can now opt for weekly testing to be on campus.
In the spring, however, students will need to be vaccinated or have a medical or religious exemption.
“This semester there is no need for an exemption since the FDA approval came in after the semester was already underway,” said Meisenzahl.
The Queen’s Health Systems on Monday reported having administered more than 274,381 vaccines, up 1,545 from Friday. Queen’s offered a vaccination clinic Monday at the University of Hawaii West Oahu in Kapolei, and is still offering vaccines at the Blaisdell Center Pikake Room and at The Queen’s Medical Center- West Oahu.
“We are very pleased that the FDA has given its full approval for the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19,” said Dr. Todd Allen, Queen’s chief quality officer, in a statement. “We hope this helps those who are hesitant about getting vaccinated feel confident about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.”
Kaiser Permanente, which continues to offer pop-up clinics at community centers and churches, has administered more than 158,700 doses.
“We at Kaiser Permanente are pleased that the FDA has given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19,” said Kaiser in a statement. “We believe this step should boost confidence among Americans that vaccination for COVID is both safe and effective, and the surest way to stop the pandemic.”
COVID-19 VACCINATIONS STILL AVAILABLE
>> Hawaii Pacific Health: Upcoming mobile clinics at Campbell Industrial Park, Ward Village and Waikele Center. Visit HawaiiPacificHealth.org/COVIDVaxSquad.
>> The Queen’s Health Systems: Visit covid.queens.org/vaccine or call 691-2222.