With more and more Hawaii residents getting vaccinated against COVID-19 each day, is it time to send students back to classrooms, lift restrictions on gatherings and businesses, and revise the state’s travel rules for those who have received the required two doses?
Lt. Gov. Josh Green thinks that time is close at hand.
In a memo Thursday to Gov. David Ige, the four county mayors and other leaders, Green set out a proposal for updating Hawaii’s COVID-19 policies as early as Feb. 15.
“As the State of Hawaii accelerates its COVID-19 vaccination distribution, it would be prudent to consider updates to the Safe Travels Hawai‘i pre-travel testing program and county restrictions on gatherings and business operations, as more Hawaii residents and visitors receive vaccinations,” Green said in his memo.
Preliminary data from the Department of Health shows 137,100 vaccinations administered statewide as of Thursday, up nearly 10,000 from the previous day’s total.
As vaccinations continue to ramp up, Green told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Friday he expects that in the next two weeks the total will rise to 250,000 inoculations. Combined with relatively low COVID case numbers and hospital capacity at its “best marks in several months,” this is the right time to “give people some assurance that we have a stable plan for the future, and that’s going to be important for how people plan for the rest of the year,” he said.
“Before long, I think many states and countries are going to begin to use vaccination status as a way to go through these pre-travel testing protocols, and so I figured we ought to take the bull by the horns and do it.”
The Department of Health on Friday reported 115 new infections and one coronavirus-related death, a woman in her 50s with underlying medical conditions. The state’s totals since the start of the pandemic are 407 fatalities and 25,656 cases.
The new cases include 75 on Oahu, 24 on Maui, five on Hawaii island and 11 residents diagnosed outside of Hawaii. Additionally, 83 patients with the virus were in Hawaii hospitals as of Thursday morning, with 20 in intensive care units and 16 on ventilators, according to DOH.
Green, an emergency room physician, noted that initial reports indicate the COVID vaccines offer “sterilization immunity,” meaning there’s little chance an immunized person will spread the virus to others.
“All of these things recommend themselves that once we do have travelers, whether interisland or from the mainland, that are vaccinated, we go down to almost zero risk that they will transmit any virus. … So if it’s not a risk, this is the time we should begin giving our state some hope and repairing our economy.”
He pointed out that travelers who aren’t vaccinated still will be able to come to Hawaii under the current Safe Travels pretesting and quarantine programs.
THE FIRST changes proposed in Green’s memo would be triggered once a majority of those in the Phase 1-B priority group established by the state have been vaccinated. Vaccinations are well underway for this group, which covers adults age 75 or older, first responders and “frontline essential workers.”
The proposed rule changes include:
>> Allowing intercounty travel without a pre-travel COVID test if individuals have completed the required vaccine doses, plus two weeks to allow for full immunity.
>> Resuming in-person instruction for the Department of Education.
>> Relaxing emergency rules to Tier 3 for all counties.
Tier 3 refers to a four-tier economic recovery plan implemented on Oahu by former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell that is based on rolling case averages and positivity rates. Honolulu is currently in the more restrictive Tier 2. Tier 3 allows for social gatherings of up to 10 people and for retail businesses to operate at full capacity.
If vaccinations continue on track, Green projects a start date for the changes of Feb. 15 to March 1.
Other rule updates would kick in when a majority of the Phase 1-C priority group is vaccinated. That group includes adults age 65 to 74; people age 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions or underlying conditions that increase the risk for severe COVID-19; and essential workers not recommended for vaccination in Phase 1-B.
Green proposes allowing travel from the mainland without a pre-arrival test if individuals have completed the required doses, plus two weeks to allow for full immunity. His projected implementation date is April 15 to May 1.
Finally, once all the Phase 1 groups have been inoculated, large gatherings would be permitted again, with a target date of May 1.
Hawaii health officials have said that approximately 80% of health care workers in the Phase 1-A group have already been immunized. Vaccinations for those in Phase 1-C are expected to be offered in the spring, and for Phase 2 — everyone else age 16 or older not covered in the Phase 1 groups — in the summer.
When asked to comment on Green’s memo, Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong said in an email that the governor and Hawaii’s mayors “are in regular discussions about COVID-19 restrictions, including the Safe Travels Program — and the (lieutenant governor’s) proposal will be considered along with all others.”
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi already is considering loosening coronavirus rules on Oahu. In an interview Wednesday with the Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii livestream video series, he indicated that with COVID numbers trending in the right direction, some restrictions could be eased as soon as mid-February, especially those affecting bars and organized youth sports.
In a brief statement Friday, Blangiardi said he is looking forward to working with state and county leaders “to update restrictions on gatherings and business operations as more Hawaii residents and visitors receive vaccinations.”
HAWAII’S three neighbor island mayors, who opted for stricter travel rules than those in effect for Oahu arrivals, expressed both caution and optimism at Green’s proposal.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawa- kami called it “a starting point” that would have to be thoroughly vetted. He said he would still like confirmation that COVID vaccines will be effective against more virulent variants of the virus and that a reliable vaccine supply is assured, although he was encouraged by news that other vaccines are close to being approved.
“My initial reaction is that I really would like all of us as mayors, the governor, the lieutenant governor and the Department of Health to come together to have a good discussion, because I really like what I see. But I rely also on the science of it. So if the science says, ‘Hey, this is all AJ squared away,’ I really like the look of it.
“Operationally, we do vet things through our incident management team, but as mayor I can tell you that if the stars align on this, I’d be really happy.”
Maui Mayor Michael Victorino was more circumspect in his statement Friday, saying that “when it comes to matters of public health, I prefer to err on the side of caution. Unless, and until, there are sufficient evidence-based medical studies to support updates to the Safe Travels Hawaii pre-travel testing program, I believe it is prudent to maintain all existing protections for the benefit or both travelers and residents.”
And from Hawaii island, Mayor Mitch Roth said in a statement, “We look forward to updating to the Safe Travels program as vaccine rollout commences so that we can begin our return to normalcy and get our communities back to work. However, the health and safety of our residents remains our top priority. For us, the easing of restrictions will be dependent upon the number of folks on our island that have received the vaccine and are protected from potential spread — particularly in our most vulnerable populations. At this time, we’re optimistic.”
Meanwhile, Mufi Hanne-mann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said Green’s proposal deserves thorough deliberation “to iron out the needed details to make travel to Hawaii as seamless and hassle-free as possible.”
He said in a statement that the plan “strikes the necessary balance between keeping local residents safe, while also beginning to re-open and recover our economy.”
“The travel industry has always sought flexibility in government mandates that would take into account the various challenges we have encountered over the past year. This program is a great example of this in that it would take full advantage of the fact that thousands of Americans are being vaccinated on a daily basis,” Hannemann said.
Hawaii Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara said Green’s proposal is another “step forward to build back our economy, which is so badly needed right now.”
“We have a long way to go, but at least there’s something in writing, a timeline, and the lieutenant governor’s proposal to open up these different types of businesses in different time frames and build up from that, and hopefully in time we can open up the entire economy.”