Scores of kupuna receive COVID-19 vaccine in Kona

  • Nona Jin Duggan, RN behavioral health, administers the first of two doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to Russ Starkey Thursday morning at Kona Community Hospital. Thursday marked the first day the hospital administered vaccines to those 75 and older. Current plans are for the Kupuna Clinic to be held on Thursdays until Feb. 6, when a Saturday clinic will be added. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Maria Mundell, RN educator, goes over a variety of information and educational materials with kupuna, some of whom were joined by family, before proceeding to receive their first of two doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday. (Photos by Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Dr. Michael Beshoner talks with JoAnn Hill as she completes her 15-minute post-vaccination wait to ensure no adverse reaction after receiving Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

  • Nona Jin Duggan, RN behavioral health, administers the first of two doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to Russ Starkey Thursday morning at Kona Community Hospital. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • A Kona Community Hospital nurse administers the first of two doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to JoAnn Hill on the first day of vaccinating kupuna age 75 and over. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii today)

It took JoAnn Hill about a half-hour and 132 calls to get through to schedule her COVID-19 vaccination at Kona Community Hospital, but her tenacity paid off.

“I’m one of those that don’t give up,” the kupuna said after she received her first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine Thursday morning. “I was persistent.”

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And for good reason: Hill wants to see her great-grandson, to whom her granddaughter gave birth back in November in California, now a coronavirus hotspot.

“I’m hoping that this will work. My big question is: will this allow me to travel if I have this, or am I going to have to have that 72-hour advance shot?” she asked. “That’s what I’m wondering, if they’re going to do something like that so I can travel to California and come back.”

Hill was one of the 89 kupuna ages 75 and older who registered to receive the coveted vaccine on Kona Community Hospital’s first day running its Kupuna Clinic. Like many others, it took some time and numerous calls to get through, but once in the system and at the site, the process was relatively easy.

Judy Donovan, hospital spokeswoman, acknowledged the community’s frustration with the registration system, noting the hospital is learning as it goes. The main issue has been that demand is extremely high and the hospital only had so many staffers available to man the lines, as normal operations must continue without interruption.

It’s estimated that there are 14,000 people over 75 on Hawaii Island that need to be vaccinated in Tier 1B. Approximately 6,000 of them are in West Hawaii — though not every single one of them will receive their vaccination from Kona Community Hospital as other facilities and providers are already or will soon administer the vaccine.

Kaiser Permanente said members 75 and older have already been notified and are scheduling vaccination appointments. West Hawaii Community Health Center plans to follow suit in the next 10 days. Veterans are also beginning to receive shots through Veterans Affairs facilities.

Donovan said Kona Community Hospital initially intended to handle registration individually over the phone, but is now planning to also offer registration via its website, kch.hhsc.org, by Tuesday. The facility is also hiring additional employees, including a clinic manager, three registration employees, two employees to handle the phone lines and an IT staffer.

People who are unable to access the website, may still call the hospital’s registration line at (808) 322-4451 between 8 a.m. and noon on weekdays. The hospital has also fixed bugs impacting the email account dedicated to answer questions only at KCHCovidVaccine@hhsc.org.

“We’re feeling the frustration, the community is feeling frustration,” Donovan said. “These clinics are being developed as we are giving the vaccine, and we are changing the processes to be more efficient every day.”

Kona Community Hospital Employee Health and Infection Prevention Director Lisa Downing, RN, BSN, said the facility has capacity to vaccinate up to 200 people per clinic day. That number is set to ensure ingress and egress for emergency vehicles on Haukapila Street, the only access to the facility, as well as to ensure the facility maintains its daily operations.

She urged the community to remain patient and not get frustrated, ensuring that despite news of limited supply, everyone will get vaccinated in due time.

“We’ve been doing this (COVID-19) for over a year. Everybody needs to take a deep breath and realize that we will get to each group as soon as we possible can. They just need to continue to do the things they are doing right now to keep themselves safe — social distancing, masking, no big gatherings, all of those kinds of things — until they can get up and get their vaccines,” she said. “All the hospitals and facilities are working through the same processes and are trying to get people signed up and shots in arms as quickly as possible.”

Once at the site, the process is relatively easy with employees screening kupuna for fever before getting them registered for the clinic and sending them off to receive an educational briefing on the vaccine from Maria Mundell, RN educator. After that, they are ushered into a temporary hospital tent located on the facility’s southern end to get inoculated by a nurse or nurse manager.

A 15-minute wait to ensure no adverse reaction follows before those who’ve received the vaccine can leave (a 30-minute wait is imposed for anyone who’s had an allergic reaction). While they are waiting, nurses and a doctor keep tabs on the patients and answer any questions they may have. There’s also water and snacks available, and occasionally live entertainment.

Russ Starkey said the 45-minute process, once at the hospital, was easy and the shot itself was “not at all” painful. He is looking forward to one day getting back to traveling the world.

“It’s an absolute no-brainer,” he said about getting the vaccine.

Vaccinations for registered kupuna will take place between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Thursdays until Feb. 6. Starting Feb. 6, the facility will offer kupuna vaccinations from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on both Thursdays and Saturdays.

Donovan did not provide a timeline for vaccinations of others in Tier 1B, which also includes people 65 and older, as well as certain essential workers.

North Hawaii Community Hospital began vaccinating Tier 1B “a while ago,” including those 75 and older and essential workers.

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Hilo Medical Center is set to begin taking information from members of those groups starting Monday, though it’s unclear when they will begin inoculation.

For the latest information on registering to receive a vaccination in Hawaii, visit https://hawaiicovid19.com/vaccination-registration.