HMC ready for vaccine: Hospital could begin vaccinations as early as next week

  • Courtesy Hilo Medical Center Nurse Tracey Silva poses with Hilo Medical Center's ultra-cold freezer which will be used to store COVID-19 vaccines when the hospital receives them. The vaccines must be kept at -70 degrees.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A Hilo Medical Center employee walks to the stairs to enter the hospital on Tuesday.

Hilo Medical Center could begin administering COVID-19 vaccines to some front-line employees as early as next week, should emergency use of the immunization be approved.

In late November, Pfizer asked U.S. regulators to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, the Associated Press reported last month. The action came days after Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech announced that its vaccine appears 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 infections in a large, ongoing study.

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Dan Brinkman, East Hawaii Regional CEO, Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which includes HMC, said Tuesday that the hospital is planning for Pfizer’s vaccine to be the first one available and could potentially receive it as soon as Monday or Tuesday.

According to Brinkman, Pfizer will fly or ship those initial doses directly to hospitals.

Although time frame could change, Brinkman said, “we’re planning for that, and we want to be ready, if needed, to administer the vaccine starting next Wednesday.”

HMC, along with other hospitals in the state, will follow guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that prioritizes long-term care facility employees and residents, as well as front-line health care workers, to receive the first rounds of available vaccines, he said.

As part of Operation Warp Speed, the goal of which is to produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Defense entered into an agreement with CVS and Walgreens to provide and administer COVID-19 vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities nationwide.

“Nursing homes here on the Big Island have all signed up, and what we’ve been told is teams from CVS and Walgreens would do distribution and the administration of the vaccine,” Brinkman said.

Front-line health care workers, however, encompass a “pretty broad category for hospital personnel,” he said, and in its broadest sense could mean two-thirds or three-fourths of the hospital’s staff.

“I don’t think we’ll have enough doses for that large of group,” he said.

According to Brinkman, HMC has prioritized employees based on their exposure risk. Those with the greatest risk will be given the highest priority for any available vaccines.

For example, those who staff the hospital’s COVID-19 unit are at high risk for infection and would be included in the first group to get the vaccine.

Brinkman said HMC doesn’t yet know how many doses of the vaccine it will receive.

If the staff is prioritized one to 1,000, and the hospital receives 1,000 doses, then everyone who wants a vaccine could get one.

However, he said, “If we only get 200, we want the 200 people at the highest risk to make sure they have access to the vaccine.”

But inoculation of hospital staff will be voluntary. Brinkman said employers can’t mandate the use of an emergency-use authorization medication or vaccine.

Likewise, Lynn Scully, spokeswoman for Queens North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea, said in an email that the hospital is planning to vaccinate health care workers, “basically anyone caring for patients inside our four walls,” per the CDC guidance, but the vaccines cannot be mandated.

QNHCH does not know how many doses it will be receiving, or when, she said. The hospital is waiting for more detailed information expected later this week.

“Staff will need to continue to mask, hand wash and take all other precautions, even after they receive the vaccine, since there is still much to learn about COVID-19 and the new vaccinations,” Scully said.

In a survey of HMC employees and contractors, Brinkman said about 48% of the more than 660 respondents said they would get vaccinated, approximately 28% said they wouldn’t, and another 27% were undecided.

“I understand people’s concerns,” he said. “I think they’re legitimate. It’s very quick, and there’s been lots of politics associated with this, which has been unfortunate.”

But for his part, Brinkman said he’s reviewed the literature and studies for the Pfizer vaccine as well as a vaccine also under consideration for emergency use from Moderna.

“I have trust it’s safe and outcomes are substantiated by data, and I’m going to take it when my priority group (can be vaccinated),” he said. “… When my time comes, I’ll stick my arm out there.”

U.S. regulators this week released their first scientific evaluation of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and confirmed it offers strong protection, setting the stage for the government to green light the biggest vaccination effort in the nation’s history, the AP reported Tuesday.

According to the AP, the analysis by Food and Drug Administration scientists comes ahead of a Thursday meeting where the agency’s independent advisers will debate if the evidence is strong enough to recommend vaccinating millions of Americans. A final FDA decision and the first shots could follow within just days.

The United Kingdom on Tuesday began vaccinations using the vaccine created by Pfizer and BioNTech.

The FDA later this month will consider one developed by Moderna, the AP said.

Also Tuesday, a medical journal published early data suggesting a third vaccine candidate, AstraZeneca’s, also protects people, though not as much as the two other front-runners.

The FDA said partial protection appears two weeks after the first dose of the Pfizer shot, and greater protection seems to last at least two months after the second and final dose, the AP reported.

As for safety, the FDA found no serious side effects among the more than 37,000 volunteers who have been tracked for at least two months after their last dose, the period when vaccination problems typically appear.

The main side effects were injection-site pain or flu-like reactions that tend to last a day or two, according to the AP. More than half of adults under 55 experienced fatigue or headaches, about a third reported chills or muscle pain, and 16% had a fever.

Older adults were less likely to experience those reactions.

For Brinkman, though, the benefits of a vaccine outweigh the risks.

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“If we want to get back to the way things were … vaccines are the route to do that, and by far the quickest route to do that,” he said.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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