When Amy Mitsuda got official word that she was eligible for the
COVID-19 vaccine, she didn’t hesitate to schedule an appointment. After a year of uncertainty, fearfulness, and isolation during the pandemic, Mitsuda knew the vaccine would bring her a step closer to normalcy.
“It was a no-brainer,” she says. “It’s something I needed to do to be safe. Not just for me, but also for everyone else.”
She’s grateful that Hawaii was able to get the vaccine early in the year so health care providers could quickly get it in the arms of those who need it the most. “I just want to get back to traveling and seeing my family and friends again.”
As word came in December that vaccines would soon be available, health care workers in the state were suddenly faced with a large task and had to move quickly. HMSA has assisted with supporting the vaccination call centers, helping members schedule vaccine appointments, and contacting eligible members.
“The speed of mass vaccinations is dramatically faster than what we’d normally do with a flu vaccine,” says Jill Hoggard Green, Ph.D., R.N., president and CEO of The Queen’s Health Systems. “From the time they authorized the vaccines to come on island to the opening of a mass vaccination site was extraordinarily fast.” Queen’s and Hawaii Pacific Health (HPH) set up the first two mass vaccination sites on Oahu.
For Queen’s, the process began with vaccinating their own people. “When we started our vaccination program for employees and caregivers, we were able to start it up in three to five days and were able to vaccinate about a thousand people a day,” Dr. Hoggard Green says. “When we got to the holidays and started thinking ahead, we knew that we had to get that number closer to 3,000 to 5,000 a day.”
Needing a large space so social distancing could be maintained, Queen’s secured the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall in Honolulu for its vaccination program within a week of starting the search. “Our legislators and Mayor Rick Blangiardi were very supportive in helping us look at sites.”
Since the opening of the Blaisdell site, Queen’s expanded its vaccination efforts to include a mass vaccination clinic at The Queen’s Medical Center–West Oahu and mobile units to reach underserved communities.
“It took a whole group of people,” Dr. Hoggard Green says. “Our legislators, our leaders in our community, and HMSA, as well as our board and all the caregivers at Queen’s. All of us have said we’re going to work together as a team to make this the safest place possible and to improve the health and well-being of Hawaii.”
For HPH, mobilizing a mass vaccine site in record time was a challenge they were prepared for.
"This is the role we were meant for during this time in our community," says Ray Vara, HPH president and CEO. "Living through this pandemic has been a journey. We all have to step up and work together."
Vara says HPH was well-equipped in staffing, planning, and organization to handle the unprecedented number of vaccinations that needed to occur. “It’s a logistical challenge,” he says. “But as a health care leader, it’s our responsibility to be part of the solution.”
In addition to administering the vaccine at its Wilcox Medical Center in Lihue for Kauai residents, HPH secured Pier 2 in Honolulu as a mass vaccination site for Oahu residents. Starting with an empty shell, they created a system for people to get their vaccine quickly and efficiently without standing in long lines. That included setting up an orderly parking and registration system and ensuring that areas were accessible to the disabled. Also, HPH had to make sure they could store the Pfizer vaccine at extremely cold temperatures.
For Vara, the work has been worth the time and energy. The proof was the look on people’s faces after getting their vaccine.
“I could tell how a great burden was suddenly lifted from them after more than a year of living through the pandemic,” he says. “It’s gratifying to know that we help make a difference.”
For current information on COVID-19 and vaccines, visit COVID-19 State of Hawaii Portal.
Photos: Courtesy of Hawaii Pacific Health and The Queen's Health Systems