Hawaii health officials said the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine on Monday is likely to help increase vaccination rates in the state.
The long-awaited approval is seen by many as a step to convince more residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as cases continue to skyrocket due to the highly contagious Delta variant.
“This morning the FDA granted the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (for people aged 16 and over) full approval,” the state health department announced on Monday on its social media platforms. “While millions of people have safely received COVID-19 vaccines, this announcement reaffirms that the vaccine is safe and effective.”
The Department of Health added that Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines also remain safe and effective vaccine options and that “there are more reasons than ever to get vaccinated to protect yourself and your family”.
On Monday, the department reported 571 new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections, bringing the state’s total number to 56,670 cases since the pandemic began. On Sunday, the state hit an all-time high of 893 new coronavirus cases.
The nationwide 7-day mean of new cases reached 671 on Monday with a positivity rate of 8.3%.
By Monday, 62% of the Hawaiian population had completed COVID-19 vaccinations while 70.3% had received at least one dose. DOH reported a total of 1,829,974 COVID vaccine doses were given, about 9,400 more than on Friday.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green posted the words “fully agree” with a shaka emoji on his Facebook page with the news on Monday morning.
On Friday’s Spotlight Hawaii, the Honolulu star advertiser’s livestream program, Green said that based on surveys, he believed that full FDA approval of the vaccine would encourage an additional 100,000 residents to get vaccinated.
According to DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr, vaccination rates in the state had risen slightly in the four weeks prior to Pfizer’s FDA approval.
A total of 23,136 COVID vaccinations were administered in the seven days leading up to Friday, almost 300 more than in the previous week, which ended on August 13. About 20,000 doses were given in the week ending August 6, and only 14,670 a week ending July 30.
A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 3 in 10 unvaccinated adults said they would be more likely to get vaccinated if any of the vaccines currently approved for emergency use were given full FDA approval.
However, KFF found that two-thirds of adults, including the majority of unvaccinated adults, were also unsure or believed that the US vaccines currently available were already fully FDA approved. This “likely suggests that FDA approval is a proxy for general safety concerns.”
DOH director Dr. Elizabeth Char said she hopes the FDA approval will help vaccinate more residents.
“When we ask people who aren’t fully vaccinated why, a lot of them say they thought it was a little early or they didn’t have enough confidence … even some claim the vaccine was experimental,” Char said during Monday a press conference. “So I really hope for these people that this will make a difference for them. I would like to remind everyone that this is the most widely studied, tested, and prosecuted vaccine in human history. We know it’s safe, we know it works. It protects people from serious illnesses, from hospital stays and from death. “
Full FDA approval is also expected to pave the way for more Hawaiian companies to pursue vaccine mandates.
Some big companies, including Hawaiian Electric, Hawaiian Airlines, First Hawaiian Bank, and Bank of Hawaii, have already announced that they would require proof of vaccination or regular tests from employees.
Labor lawyer Anna Elento-Sneed said many Hawaiian companies had been waiting for approval.
“One of the objections is whether they get whistleblower claims from people who thought they needed an emergency-approved vaccine, and that’s no longer the case,” she said. “I think you will see that given the situation with the Delta variant, many employers are opting for mandatory testing.”
Although every company, small or large, needs to do its own risk assessment, she said that this removes a concern about whether the vaccines are safe for regular use.
According to spokesman Dan Meisenzahl, the University of Hawaii is maintaining its current vaccination and testing guidelines for the fall semester.
UH announced in the summer that it would not enforce its vaccine mandate due to the lack of full FDA approval, and since it failed to do so in the weeks leading up to classes starting on Monday, unvaccinated students can now opt for weekly testing on Campus.
In the spring, however, students must be vaccinated or obtain a medical or religious exemption.
“This semester does not require a special permit, as the FDA approval was only granted after the end of the semester,” says Meisenzahl.
The Queen’s health system reported Monday it administered more than 274,381 vaccines, 1,545 more than on Friday. Queen’s offered a vaccination clinic at the University of Hawaii West Oahu in Kapolei on Monday and is still offering vaccines in the Blaisdell Center Pikake Room and Queen’s Medical Center-West Oahu.
“We are very pleased that the FDA has given the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 full approval,” said Dr. Todd Allen, Queen’s chief quality officer, in a statement. “We hope this will help those who hesitate to vaccinate them to feel safe about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.”
Kaiser Permanente, which continues to offer pop-up clinics in community centers and churches, has delivered more than 158,700 doses.
“We at Kaiser Permanente are pleased that the FDA has given the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 full approval,” Kaiser said in a statement. “We believe this move should build Americans’ confidence that vaccination against COVID is both safe, effective, and the safest way to stop the pandemic.”
COVID-19 VACCINATIONS STILL AVAILABLE
>> Hawaii Pacific Health: Upcoming mobile clinics at Campbell Industrial Park, Ward Village and Waikele Center. Visit HawaiiPacificHealth.org/COVIDVaxSquad.
>> Queen’s Health Systems: Visit covid.queens.org/vaccine or call 691-2222.
>> More information: Visit oneoahu.org/find-vaccine or hawaiicovid19.com/vaccine.