With COVID-19 case numbers on the decline and vaccinations rising among Oahu’s most vulnerable populations, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Thursday he is ready to “reward” residents for their actions in curtailing the spread of the novel coronavirus on Oahu.
Wednesday’s daily COVID data release by the state Department of Health will determine whether Blangiardi moves the city to the less restrictive Tier 3 of its Reopening Framework from the current Tier 2, which has been in effect since Oct. 22.
According to framework guidelines, in order to advance to Tier 3, the seven- day average of new cases must be below 50 on two consecutive Wednesdays, and the test positivity rate must be below 2.5%. This week was the first time those metrics were met, with Wednesday’s report showing an average case count of 33 on Oahu and average positivity rate of 1.2%.
The Health Department on Thursday reported 67 new infections statewide and one additional coronavirus-related death, an Oahu man in his 90s with underlying health conditions. The Oahu numbers for the week show 25 new cases reported on Monday, 13 on Tuesday, 17 on Wednesday and 45 on Thursday.
“We like where we are. We like what the numbers are showing. We are most hopeful we can go to Tier 3,” Blangiardi said while speaking to reporters at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the Honolulu CrimeStoppers. If Oahu moves to Tier 3, the mayor said he would propose relaxing even more restrictions than allowed under the framework established by former Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Blangiardi would not disclose what those proposals are, saying he would be discussing the matter with Gov. David Ige and DOH Director Dr. Libby Char. The mayor previously said he would like to loosen rules for the hard-hit restaurant industry and for organized youth sports.
Tier 3 permits social and outdoor recreational gatherings of up to 10 people, up from five currently, and funerals with up to 25 people in attendance, now limited to 10. Restaurants would be allowed to seat groups of up 10 people, up from five now, and gyms and fitness facilities would be able to operate at 50% capacity instead of the current 25%, among other guidelines.
Blangiardi said the tier system was developed with the idea that a large segment of the population would have received COVID vaccinations by mid-2021. The state is well ahead of that goal, he said, with many of Oahu’s most vulnerable residents now protected from the virus that has sickened 27,000 statewide and led to 428 deaths.
An estimated 276,603 vaccinations had been administered across the islands as of Wednesday, according to preliminary data from the DOH. The agency’s weekly vaccine update indicated that 12.5% of Hawaii’s population had been vaccinated, including more than 55% of residents age 75 and older.
“I think there’s a lot of room here to take a fresh look at what we can do under these circumstances,” the mayor said. “We want to reward the public. The public is doing exactly what the tier system was set up to do, to encourage, if you will, the kind of behavior-modification program to get people to comply with wearing masks, distancing, washing hands, avoiding large gatherings, and our community is evidently doing that and doing it well. So now the time comes to reward.
“I think we should be very fair-minded about that.”
MEANWHILE, health officials reported receiving a shipment of 9,750 doses of the Pfizer vaccine Thursday, although the state is still missing 27,700 Moderna doses due to deadly winter weather across much of the mainland that has delayed vaccine deliveries in a number of states.
So far this week Hawaii has received 19,500 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which is shipped out of Kalamazoo, Mich. Officials said they don’t know when the overdue Moderna vaccine will be shipped from sources in Memphis, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky.
Temporary COVID vaccine shortages caused by delayed shipments needn’t worry folks who have received their first dose and are awaiting a second shot, according to health experts who participated in a public webinar Thursday aimed at providing information on Hawaii’s vaccination process.
Although guidelines call for a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine within 17 to 21 days of the first, and within 24 to 28 days for the Moderna vaccine, “up to 42 days is considered OK for either vaccine,” according to Dr. Melinda Ashton, who leads Hawaii Pacific Health’s mass vaccination clinic at Pier 2.
“It’s a little bit complex to reschedule appointments — that’s the major concern but not impossible,” Ashton said. “So if we do need to delay, there’s no reason to worry about having to start again with your vaccine doses or anything like that, and actually even longer than 42 days is still considered safe to just give the second dose and not repeat the first.”
Under the state’s vaccination program, only individuals in so-called Phase 1-A and 1-B are currently eligible for vaccinations. These groups include health care workers, long-term care home residents and staff, adults 75 and older, and “frontline essential workers.”
ACTING STATE Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble, at the webinar, said, inoculations are not far off for those in Phase 1-C, namely people 65 and older, those with high-risk medical conditions and essential workers not included in the first groups.
“We are looking at moving into 1-C fairly soon. I would say come early March we should be seeing the next groups that we’re able to open up to,” Kemble said. “Right now we are actively in Phase 1-C planning.”
Even with the progress being made in COVID vaccinations, Hawaii residents shouldn’t expect to retire their face masks anytime soon, the webinar speakers said.
“Until we understand better whether asymptomatic transmission is still possible after vaccination, and until we have a higher proportion of our population vaccinated, masks are still going to be really important, as is physical distancing and avoiding large gathering and staying home if you’re sick,” Kemble said.
THERE IS EVEN more uncertainty in determining the appropriate timing for easing travel restrictions to and around Hawaii, she said.
“It’s only recently that we’ve begun to see some of these new variant strains, and based on the genetics of those viruses, they do come from other parts of the world,” Kemble said. “So it’s just a reminder that we are not safe necessarily from imported new strains and that those could change the dynamic of transmission here in the islands.“
Whether widespread vaccination will allow changes to travel guidelines is “being looked at very carefully right now but also with some caution to make sure we don’t move too quickly in a direction that may affect the balance we have right now,” Kemble said.
“Right now we are lucky to be seeing decreasing case counts, and we hope to keep it that way. And part of that formula is both getting as much vaccine out as quickly as we can and maintaining many of the mitigation measures that we have in place right now while we get through that vaccination phase.”