State Health Director Dr. Libby Char is “cautiously optimistic” Hawaii will meet a directive from President Joe Biden to make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations no later than May 1, if the state continues to get a steady supply of vaccines.
“I want to be cautiously optimistic,” she told lawmakers Thursday. “Because if I say we’re going to be able to do something, I want to make sure that we can really meet that. So, I’m not saying 100% yes, but cautiously optimistic.”
Char spoke about a number of coronavirus-related topics during an informational briefing conducted jointly by the state Senate Health Committee and state House Committee on Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness.
The DOH receives a weekly vaccine allotment, which is then allocated to each island, Char said.
According to Char, Hawaii County has 14% of the state’s 16-and-older population and has received about 14% of the vaccine allocations.
“There’s some complexity in allocating the vaccine, and we’re trying to make sure that we’re allocating a good amount of vaccine to every county,” she said. “It’s a combination of Pfizer and Moderna, and now that also includes a little bit of Johnson &Johnson.”
The state initially received 11,900 doses of the Johnson &Johnson vaccine on Feb. 28, but didn’t receive much more in the following weeks.
“Good news is that we’re hearing that 8,400 doses will be available to us to order for next week, so we’re really excited about that and we look forward to getting that,” Char said. “(There) seems to be a really big demand for it here, so we’re very, very optimistic, because that will help.”
The state is now receiving about 68,000 vaccine doses per week. At this rate, it will take about 7-14 weeks to vaccinate all eligible individuals in Phase 1C.
“It’s not exactly what we had expected,” said Char. “We thought we would be getting a lot more doses a lot quicker.”
Deputy Health Director Cathy Ross said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Hawaii in the top five to eight states for the number of doses administered based on the population.
Some of that success can be attributed to Hawaii’s approach to prioritizing eligibility, she said, noting recent reports which found states that rolled out vaccines in targeted and methodical ways have vaccinated a greater number of people than those that didn’t.
“We just want to highlight that sometimes, what may seem to make sense in terms of opening it up to the greatest number of people actually proves not to be the right thing to do when you have a limited amount of vaccine available,” Ross said.
“This is everybody’s first opportunity at doing this massive vaccine rollout,” Char said. “This is unprecedented times and so there’s no playbook that has all the right answers in it. We’ve been fairly methodical. I know we’ve been criticized a fair amount for it. I think we’re doing OK, though.
“This is the approach we chose and it seems to be working fairly well for us, for our population,” she continued. “Obviously it’s going to be different for each of the states, but I think we’re on track.”
As vaccine eligibility opens up to those in Phase 1C of the state’s vaccination plan, the state must still sub-prioritize that group, which includes approximately 500,000 people.
Phase 1C includes adults 65-69, those 16-64 with underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk for severe COVID-19 infections and essential workers not recommended for vaccine in previous categories.
Char said about 57% of adults, or 340,000 people, in Hawaii have at least one chronic condition, a number of which were found to put people at higher risk of severe COVID-19 infections.
“Logistically, it’s very challenging to sub-prioritize which illnesses and the severity of the illness in each individual.”
Char said a group of clinical experts from each county and major health care systems found a correlation between these conditions and age.
Rather than prioritizing vaccines by disease, it makes sense to open appointments by age, she said, “and that should correlate pretty well with the underlying medical conditions.”
According to Char, neighbor islands likely will move through their age categories more quickly than Oahu.
“I think we’re trying our best to keep things moving smoothly with as little chaos and anxiety as possible,” Char told the committees. “If we move too slowly, people get really frustrated, and we have vaccine that’s waiting for arms. If we open things up indiscriminately, we get too many people competing for appointments at the same time. That leads to a lot of anxiety and panic. And if people don’t make appointments, we end up with long lines, people waiting for hours.
“So, we’re trying to balance all of that and make vaccine available and move fast enough that we keep the uptake of appointments as brisk as we can,” she continued. “We will get vaccine to everybody that wants it. … We’re going to start moving faster and faster as more of the population is done.”
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