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Editorial: Start planning for easing COVID-19 restrictions

Since the first week of vaccine distribution in Hawaii, when fewer than 3,500 doses were administered, the count of vaccinations has been ramping up, a few supply-chain hiccups notwithstanding. Speaking Monday on “Spotlight Hawaii,” the Star-Advertiser’s webcast, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said shots can now be administered at a pace of 10,000 a day.

If distribution proceeds smoothly, Green said, some 350,000 doses will be in arms here by the end of February, moving Hawaii along the path toward “herd immunity” and a gradual return to larger gatherings for everything from potlucks to graduations — albeit with protocols such as mask-wearing and physical distancing still in place.

“Overall, we can get out of this COVID crisis in the summertime, if people continue to be patient and we continue to vaccinate all that we can,” he said. After long months of fending off the spread of COVID-19 only with infection testing and basic public health hygiene protocols, followed by an initially bumpy vaccine rollout, Green’s forecast is a welcome one.

Also, the encouraging progress is enabling the envisioning of steps toward lifting Hawaii Safe Travels requirements for fully vaccinated travelers who meet certain conditions. In a memo sent last week to Gov. David Ige, county mayors and other leaders, Green set out a proposal for updating Hawaii’s COVID-19 policies as early as mid-month. Although that timetable likely is overly optimistic, discussions should indeed be occurring now to strategically evolve policies.

Among the first proposed changes, which would kick in once a majority in the state’s Phase 1-B priority group — kupuna age 75 and older, and some essential workers — has been vaccinated: Individuals who have completed required vaccine doses, plus a two-week subsequent wait to allow for full immunity, would be allowed to travel from county to county without taking a pre-travel COVID-19 test.

In addition, county restrictions, now based on COVID-19 case counts and test positivity rates, would be relaxed. In Honolulu, that would likely mean moving to a less-restrictive “tier,” which would allow larger social gatherings and for most retail businesses to operate at full capacity.

The apparent efficacy of vaccines now in wide distribution, along with Hawaii’s relatively low coronavirus caseload and the urgent need to spur Hawaii’s devastated economy, all give credence to Green’s vision. While the state’s unemployment rate has declined in recent months, it remains the highest in the nation.

Other rule updates would take effect when a majority in Phase 1-C is vaccinated — kupuna age 65-74; those age 16-64 with high-risk medical conditions or underlying conditions; and other essential workers. There’s a total of about 200,000 people in the first two phases, 1-A and 1-B; and 400,000 in 1-C.

Since the mid-October start of Safe Travels, trans-Pacific visitors have had to navigate a tangle of requirements while contending with the possibility of new restrictions popping up.

According to preliminary figures, 2020 saw just 2.7 million visitor arrivals — a free fall from 2019’s record-breaking count of 10.4 million — with losses in each county ranging from about 70% to 80%. An updated Safe Travels protocol that would allow vaccinated travelers to bypass quarantine — and perhaps even 72-hour pretravel testing — could bring gains toward a meaningful rebound. All, of course, if the science on vaccination efficacy and immunity hold up.

Green’s “Operation Vaccination Shield” strategy, as currently proposed, prompts a needed forward-looking discussion, as more vaccinations start changing the nuances of COVID. No shield is impervious to the spread of the virus — but when paired with other current tactics for fending off infection, it affords us opportunity to better balance public health and economic recovery.

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