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UH-MC donates freezer to store Pfizer vaccine

Doses expected to arrive on Maui by the end of the week

MIKE REMBIS – Vaccine on its way. Zoom screenshots

The University of Hawaii-Maui College has donated a freezer large enough to house thousands of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is expected to arrive on island by the end of the week, Maui Health CEO Mike Rembis said Monday night.

“The vaccine is on its way,” Rembis said during a Zoom presentation hosted by the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. “I want to give a thank-you to the University of Hawaii-Maui College. They had a huge ultra-low freezer, which they were not using, which they loaned to us, so we can store literally thousands of vaccines below 70 to 80 degrees, and we have the capacity, potentially, for the entire island.”

Health officials have said capacity is a concern on Neighbor Islands that might not have as much cold storage for the vaccine.

The state announced last week that it planned to distribute more than 81,000 doses this month for the first-priority category of high-risk health care workers and long-term care facilities and staff. Mayor Michael Victorino has said there will be 16,000 doses in the first round for Maui County, which would cover 8,000 individuals with two doses each.

While there is no delivery date for Maui, Rembis said that Honolulu was set to receive the virus vaccine Tuesday, and so the Valley Isle community should be close behind, with distribution to begin Thursday or Friday.

Jim Diegel, Maui Health’s chief strategy officer, discusses next year’s plans for Maui Memorial Medical Center on Monday via Zoom.

Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu was the first health care facility in Hawaii to receive and administer the vaccine, with five frontline workers volunteering to receive the shot Tuesday. Tripler Army Medical Center on Oahu also opened its first shipment of the vaccine Tuesday, Gov. David Ige announced.

Maui Health, which is affiliated with Kaiser Permanente, includes Maui Memorial Medical Center, the Outpatient Clinic, Kula Hospital, Kula Clinic and the Lana’i Community Hospital.

The first individuals to get the vaccine will include health care workers and physicians giving direct care. Rembis anticipates that the majority of workers will take the vaccine by the end of spring.

“There’s a few much like you and me, our friends and neighbors, that want to wait and see, but I think that most health care workers understand that in order to protect the community, to protect themselves, taking the vaccine is so important,” he said.

Long-term care patients and those staying in nursing facilities, as well as the staff, are next on the priority list for doses of the vaccine. Those 65 years and older and individuals with significant symptoms that can weaken the immune system are to follow, Rembis said.

Maui Health will be vaccinating the health care workers and physicians, while the state Department of Health Maui District Office will be vaccinating the community. Walgreens and CVS have also partnered statewide to order, distribute and administer the doses.

“It’s really a joint effort between the pharmacies, the county, the Department of Health and Maui Health to make sure this vaccine gets distributed as quickly as possible,” Rembis said. “It’s so important that we do everything correctly. We’re the only (acute care) hospital on Maui — your care, your health is the only thing we’re here for and to give the very best care possible.”

There are currently 180 patients at Maui Memorial, four with the coronavirus, and 219 beds.

“We worry every day when we look at the news, the nightly news, when you look at what’s happening across the country, the surges are huge,” Rembis said. “Right now we have four COVID patients at the hospital, and that’s the highest we’ve been in the last two months. We’ve been very blessed. I think people are listening to the mayor — they’re wearing their masks and social distancing, they are washing their hands.”

About 30 percent of COVID-19 positive people are asymptomatic, which is why wearing a face mask is important, he said. Face masks will most likely be required and/or recommended for the next two years statewide, and will probably remain the policy to enter the hospital.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Rembis said. “I’ve been in this business for over 40 years. HIV was a scare for health care workers, for patients, but it was never as large or as far-reaching as this pandemic. There’s nothing in our lifetimes that will come close to this. It changed things so much in our society — how we care for patients, it has had a profound impact on every single staff member.”

Although there has been a minor uptick in cases recently, Rembis is confident that the Valley Isle won’t see a “huge surge, but we are ready if needed.”

“We are seeing the cases go up on Maui, slightly,” he said. “We keep in contact with the county and the mayor on a daily basis. Most of the increase we’re seeing on Maui, the vast majority, has nothing to do with the visitors. It’s our friends, our neighbors, our residents letting their guard down and not wearing their masks, not social distancing, and a lot of it has to do with Thanksgiving, unfortunately.”

Maui Memorial is prepared to increase the number of beds to 300, as well as add ventilators, masks and other supplies if needed. Rembis said that more than 2,000 Maui Health employees have also been tested for COVID-19, some more than others, as a precautionary measure.

“We continue to pray that we don’t have a surge, but we are ready if there is one,” he said. “Now the focus is really moved to the vaccine.”

On Monday night, Maui Health Chief Strategy Officer Jim Diegel also discussed recent and future developments for Maui Memorial, including the recruitment of 13 new surgeons over the past three years, continuing to hire all UH-MC nursing students under the grant program, adding an infectious disease specialist this coming February and now taking steps to becoming a regional referral facility.

“A regional referral center is a hospital that not only has all of the general specialties that you are familiar with in most community hospitals, but also has a degree of sophistication and expertise in specialty areas, such as cardiovascular surgery or stroke care or advanced orthopedic procedures,” Diegel explained.

“We’re spending a significant amount of our time in really recruiting and expanding the capabilities within our medical staff, so that Maui Memorial can become more of that referral, where perhaps referrals coming from the Big Island, or patients off Maui can come to us, and we can take care of those patients appropriately and with high quality.”

Diegel and Rembis both said their strategic plans will focus on “reducing the out-migration of patients” and “not relying on” Oahu or the Mainland for advanced care by offering all the programs and services needed on Maui.

Rembis said that the COVID-19 pandemic is not going to go away immediately with the vaccine, so “we need to make sure we have all the specialty care we need going forward.”

“My goal is very simple: I want people from Maui taking care of people on Maui,” he said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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