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Department of Health vaccine appointments going unfilled on Maui

Health office may look to weekend clinics to generate more interest

UH-Maui nursing student Ilaise Davis draws a dose of Moderna vaccine into a syringe on April 1 during the state Department of Health’s vaccination clinic at the college. After being swamped with demand early in the rollout, the Maui District Health Office said it’s recently been struggling to fill appointment slots. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

For about a week now, appointments have gone unfilled at state Department of Health vaccine clinics in Kahului, mere months after people once waited hours in line to get a shot and were sometimes turned away as demand overwhelmed the clinic.

With Hawaii receiving more shipments and Neighbor Island vaccines now open to all residents, supply is currently outweighing demand, at least for the Maui District Health Office.

“One week ago we had plenty vaccine, and a lot of people were not signing up for the appointments,” Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang said Wednesday via phone from the vaccine site.

In January, with the state still focusing on kupuna and high-risk groups for vaccines, hundreds turned out regularly for DOH clinics. About 760 shots were given out at a Jan. 11 clinic, with about 400 more patients than expected. At a clinic two days later, some 800 shots were administered and about 150 were turned away as the clinic closed early over concerns for the high volume of elderly patients waiting in line.

At a recent clinic on Friday, only about half of the DOH’s 900 vaccine appointments were taken, Pang said at a county news conference that afternoon.

A long line of drivers wait their chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine at the state Department of Health site at the University of Hawaii Maui College in January. After being swamped with demand while vaccinating the first priority groups, the Maui District Health Office is now struggling to fill appointment slots. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Pang said Tuesday that he has already heard from officials on Kauai and Hawaii island, along with DOH’s Maui partners, such as Minit Medical, about interest in the vaccine going down.

“It’s hard to get people to want to make an appointment,” he said.

Pang attributed this to “vaccine hesitancy” and also pointed out that those who really wanted the vaccine were already part of the priority groups in the first phases or have already signed up for their shots.

Gov. David Ige told The Maui News on Tuesday that vaccine supplies for the entire state have been increasing and that more private pharmacies are opening up clinics in response to the federal government’s push to get more people vaccinated. Hawaii had been steadily moving through each tier until the DOH gave Neighbor Islands the green light to open vaccines to all residents ages 16 and older on April 5. Oahu is still focusing on older residents and extended eligibility to adults 50 and older on Monday.

At DOH’s clinic at UH-MC on Wednesday, Pang spoke to patients at random to see why they waited to get their vaccines and what changed their minds.

Some patients said they wanted to see how others fared after getting the vaccine first. Others said they knew of people who were concerned about long-term effects of the shot, had conspiracy theories about receiving the vaccine or thought the virus was fake, Pang said.

About 85 percent of the population will need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity, a higher estimate than before because of the recent rise in COVID-19 variants, Pang said.

He said there are a number of reasons why he encourages people to get the vaccine — the hope of getting “life back to normal”; a chance to participate in large events and travel, which may require vaccination in the future; and protection from “long COVID,” in which symptoms or issues persist weeks or months after a person is first infected with the virus. Symptoms of long COVID can include shortness of breath, brain fog and/or ringing in the ear.

Pang said that young people, not the elderly, are primarily suffering from long COVID, and in some cases their symptoms are so debilitating that they need caregivers.

To get more people vaccinated, Pang is also doing taped and live call-ins with different radio stations and will take questions from people about the vaccine.

Recently, the UH-MC vaccine site shifted from a drive-thru in the parking lot to a sit-down system in a college building, which Pang said was not due to the lower numbers but rather to cut down on the number of staff and volunteers needed to man the site.

Fewer volunteers are needed to monitor traffic and parking conditions, and now one person can watch over a room of patients for post-vaccine reactions versus several people monitoring patients in multiple cars.

Vaccination efforts could also start taking place at some hotels and businesses, partly in response to Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char’s desire to have clinics in areas where clusters have appeared in the past, Pang said.

He is also looking at having vaccine clinics on weekends, perhaps in West Maui, to help generate more interest.

DOH hosted a clinic at King Kekaulike High School Saturday morning, with about 500 vaccines administered and appointments filling up in four hours.

Pang said the number one reason people came out was because they wanted the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine that was being offered at the clinic. They also came because the clinic was closer to home and held on a Saturday morning.

Federal health agencies recommended a “pause” on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Tuesday to do more research on six cases of women who developed rare blood clots after getting the Johnson & Johnson shot. Char called it a “setback” but said it would not stop Hawaii’s vaccine efforts, which have relied primarily on Pfizer and Moderna up to this point.

While some vaccine sites struggle to fill appointments, Maui Health said its clinics at Maui Memorial Medical Center and at the Haleakala Ballroom of the Grand Wailea are holding steady.

“We are fulfilling our available appointments and have opened our appointments up through May for both clinic sites to encourage all eligible Maui residents to get vaccinated,” spokeswoman Tracy Dallarda said Monday.

Maui Health averages about 5,000 vaccines per week and has seen an increase in South Maui appointments since the clinic moved from the Kaiser Permanente office in Kihei to the hotel on March 31. Since then, appointments in South Maui have gone from about 150 to 200 per clinic per day to more than 500. Clinics are held Wednesdays and Fridays and have been filled, Dallarda said.

After Maui Health announced on April 2 that it would open up appointments for qualified patients ages 16 and up, it saw 2,000 new appointments by the morning of April 5, Dallarda said. Nearly 500 of those appointments were for those 16 to 18 years of age.

The DOH said that to date, Maui has received 103,520 vaccine doses, which is 12 percent of the state’s allocation; Maui has 11 percent of the population.

Molokai has received 6,350 doses and Lanai has received 2,200.

Maui is receiving 12,080 doses this week, which is 16 percent of this week’s allocation to the state. Lanai is receiving 100 doses.

Molokai is not receiving doses but has vaccine clinics open April 22 and 23 at Molokai Community Health Center. For more information, visit molokaichc.org.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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