Booster shots available but emphasis still on the unvaccinated

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Testers with S&G Labs take a break between cars Wednesday to prepare for more COVID-19 testing at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo. In an effort to more effectively combat the coronavirus, the CDC has endorsed a third booster dose of vaccine for senior citizens and other vulnerable populations.

Some Big Island residents who are fully inoculated against COVID-19 with a vaccine from Pfizer are now eligible for a booster dose — although the state Department of Health continues to prioritize immunizations for the unvaccinated.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Thursday approved a series of recommendations from a panel of advisers, the Associated Press reported. The advisers said boosters should be offered to people 65 and older, nursing home residents, and those ages 50 to 64 who have risky underlying health problems.

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“Many of the people who are now eligible to receive a booster shot received their initial vaccinations early in the vaccination program and will benefit from additional protection,” Queen’s North Hawaii Community Hospital said in a news release Friday. “With the Delta variant’s dominance and cases of COVID-19 increasing significantly across the United States, a booster shot will help strengthen protection against severe disease in those populations at high risk for exposure to COVID-19 or the complications from severe disease.”

Booster shots are available, as are first and second shots of the vaccine, at the QNHCH Vaccine Clinic, with no appointment necessary.

QNHCH is offering the booster to people over 65, residents in long-term care settings, people 18-64 with underlying conditions, and adults at high risk of disease from occupational and institutional exposures.

The clinic is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Hilo Medical Center will provide boosters at its vaccine clinic located at the Arc of Hilo, but will evaluate the clinic’s capacity versus demand in the coming days.

Spokeswoman Elena Cabatu said the clinic has about 150 doses of Pfizer available per day, and those interested in a booster should schedule an appointment through VAMS, or the Vaccine Administration Management System, to guarantee an appointment.

According to the new prioritization guidelines published Friday by the state Department of Health, however, first and second doses should be given priority over any booster doses.

The department then recommends that providers give priority to individuals 65 and older, and people 50-64 with underlying medical conditions.

As supplies allow, providers should consider booster doses for additional groups recommended by the CDC.

The DOH said people 18-49 with underlying medical conditions and people 18-64 at high risk for occupational or institutional exposure should be given boosters as supply allows.

Cabatu said the hospital agreed with prioritizing first and second doses over any booster shots, “because again, this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, but we also have many eager people who are wanting the vaccine.”

HMC will next prioritize people 65 and older, and those 50-64 with underlying health conditions.

A third group, focusing on people in occupations with a high risk of exposure and those 18-49 with underlying conditions, will be prioritized based on HMC’s vaccine supply.

Hospital administrator Kris Wilson couldn’t estimate what the demand might be, but said the hospital did a poll of employees, which indicated a “pretty positive response toward receiving a booster shot or a third dose.”

HMC also has been fielding calls from kupuna interested in signing up for the third dose.

“I would like to just remind everybody that our No. 1 priority, and that’s the priority of the CDC as well as the FDA and the Hawaii Department of Health, is to keep people from severe illness and needing hospitalization, and this means that people who are not yet fully vaccinated should have priority over all others,” state Health Director Dr. Libby Char said in a Zoom meeting with reporters Friday. “That’s the real goal in our vaccination right now.”

Eventually, booster shots will be available to everyone who wants one. Char said there’s no need for people to “rush out” and get one.

“Please allow those who are not fully vaccinated get vaccinated first because they are at highest risk, and then please allow those who are at higher risk to get their booster doses next,” she said. “As more supply become available, providers can then administer booster doses to the additional populations that were recommended for booster shots by the CDC.”

According to the DOH, booster doses provide additional protection, but the primary two-dose vaccine series continues to protect individuals against severe illness, hospitalization and death.

The DOH recommendations apply only to those who received the Pfizer vaccine. There are no changes for those who received vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Char did not know how many people were eligible for the booster shot as of Friday but said there were about 90,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in Hawaii.

Because of the demand for Pfizer, Char said the state is limited in how much it can order.

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“So, we will be ordering our allocation,” she said. “That’s another reason to just remind people, let’s go through this process calmly and let’s use it where it will make the biggest difference to us. We will get enough vaccine for everybody who wants a dose. I see no reason that everybody needs to rush out and get it int he first week. Let’s do it reasonably.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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