The state Department of Health expects to open up vaccinations to those 70-74 in the coming weeks.
The DOH on Friday announced it was preparing to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to those 70 and older but did not have a date for when the vaccines would be available to that group.
Currently, kupuna 75 and older are eligible to get vaccinated.
State Health Director Dr. Libby Char, however, said during a livestream Monday with state Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole and state Rep. Linda Ichiyama, both Oahu Democrats, that vaccines for the 70-74 group could realistically begin in about three weeks.
According to Char, winter storms on the mainland last week meant the state received no doses of the Moderna vaccine — those are instead expected to arrive this week — and thousands of appointments had to be rescheduled.
The DOH said Friday that 27,700 doses of the vaccine were expected the week of Feb. 15 but were delayed because of ice storms on the mainland.
“Certainly, if we can get something sooner, and smooth out the backlogs and weather and everything, we’ll do it as soon as we can,” she said.
Char added that three weeks is a “reasonable timeframe.”
The state’s vaccination plan prioritizes distribution of vaccines in two phases.
The first phase has three components, with an emphasis on high-risk populations.
Phase 1A includes health care personnel and long-term care facility residents, while Phase 1B includes frontline essential workers, such as teachers, and adults 75 and older.
Adults 65-74, people 16-64 with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers not included in 1B can be vaccinated in Phase 1C.
Phase 2 will cover the rest of the population, which includes everyone 16 and older not included in previous categories.
“We’re still in 1B,” Char said. “We’re not ready to move to 1C yet, but we know that 1C is a gigantic category, almost 500,000 people, so we definitely would need to subprioritize.”
However, Char said there are still a lot of kupuna and essential frontline workers in Phase 1B who need to be vaccinated.
“But we want to keep the uptick of vaccine really brisk, so I think we will remain in 1B, but pretty soon we’ll be able to welcome 70 and older to get vaccines, while we stay in 1B.”
Keohokalole asked Char why the state chose to move the eligible age from 75 to 70.
“When that 75-and-older announcement was made, my office was immediately inundated by 73-year-olds in Kaneohe who were upset about this rigid age range, and so over the weekend I’m already getting calls and requests from 67-year-olds, going, ‘Why not us?’” he said. “So, why the move?”
“I understand,” Char replied. “People are anxious to get vaccinated, and we are anxious to vaccinate them. …
“So, it really is a matter of how much vaccine are we receiving, and that’s the good thing — we’re slowly starting to see the uptick in the amount of vaccine.”
According to Char, the state is on target to receive 50,000 vaccine doses starting next week. With those additional doses, the state will soon be able to open vaccinations to those 70 and older.
“The reason we don’t want to just open it wide and say, ‘Everybody come on down,’ (is that) we’re not ready to hit 1C yet, because that would be an influx of almost half a million people,” Char said. “I think that’d be really chaotic, and what I worry about with that is that those who are older or not so computer savvy, or maybe have transportation issues, they’re going to get pushed on the side.
“So it’s not the matter of vaccinating as many people as quickly as we can, it’s vaccinating as many of the right people as quickly as we can, and we want to be fair,” she continued. “We want to make sure those who need it the most, have the highest risk, have access to it. So that’s why I think we can back it down a little bit to 70.”
Gov. David Ige shared similar sentiments Monday during a different livestream with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
“We’ve seen a lot of stories on the mainland of people waiting hours and hours and hours in the hope that they can get vaccinated,” he said. “We want to be able to schedule our residents. There’s 130,000 individuals between 65 and 75, and if we made it available to all of that, once again, we feel like there would be too many people wanting to get appointments and not enough slots.”
At Hilo Medical Center, however, the expanding vaccine availability beyond the 75-plus age group still needs discussion.
“What is happening on Oahu isn’t necessarily what is happening on the ground here in our county,” hospital spokeswoman Elena Cabatu said.
Although Char says vaccines will open up to the 70-74 age group soon, “our messaging has been (that) we’re committed to getting through kupuna 75-plus,” she said. The hospital, though, still needs to discuss the matter with other PODs, or points of dispensing.
In a COVID-19 update emailed Monday afternoon, Cabatu said Hawaii Island continues to stay the course, vaccinating those 75 and older. HMC’s vaccine clinic continues to focus on that age group.
“Our best estimates for moving on to the next group is up to a month, maybe longer,” Cabatu wrote. “We remind our community to focus on developments at the Hawaii County level. We can only administer the vaccines we receive, but we remain hopeful that the supply will increase in due time.”