Since mid-October, the state’s Safe Travels program has managed to welcome more than 1 million visitors to the islands while keeping COVID-19 cases relatively low. Now, with vaccination rates climbing, momentum is building to amend the program by allowing vaccinated travelers to bypass pre-testing for the virus.
Forward motion should start with a statewide plan to ease interisland requirements soon, so that after becoming fully vaccinated, travelers may crisscross Hawaii freely, without undergoing COVID-19 testing or quarantine. The start date should hinge on guidance from health officials, and on providing sufficient advance notice so that business communities and travel-related sectors can step up safety measures and prepare for an increase in island-hopping traffic.
This is a needed step toward better balancing public health concerns with economic recovery; still, Hawaii must proceed cautiously. Since the pandemic surfaced a year ago, Hawaii has frequently ranked among states with lowest infection and death rates. However, in the absence of herd immunity significantly blunting threat, our state remains vulnerable to case-count surges that could quickly overwhelm health care resources.
So far, about 20% of the state’s general population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. While that’s encouraging progress, herd immunity is gauged at 70% or higher. And, it’s still not known how long immunity lasts, either after vaccination or from an infection, though experts believe it should be at least several months.
Further complicating the path to recovery is the emergence of variants. It’s worrisome that after cases of the highly contagious variant known as B.1.1.7, originally found in the United Kingdom, surfaced in Hawaii last month, another highly transmissible variant — originally found in South Africa — has been detected in an Oahu resident. The new strain, known as B.1.351, has a mutation that researchers say might make it less responsive to the antibodies.
While the one-shot Johnson &Johnson vaccine has proved effective in preventing serious disease and death in South Africa, where the latter strain is predominant, vaccine alone, in any case, is by no means a silver-bullet solution to the coronavirus problem. To effectively fend off aggressive variants, the yearlong drill of wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and washing hands is more important than ever.
If the state is able to smoothly launch less-restrictive interisland travel, the amended Safe Travels program could then be expanded to include trans-Pacific travel, thereby helping to further boost the still-struggling tourism industry. Occupancy at Hawaii hotels is currently about 30% of pre-COVID levels, so any safe recovery action is welcome.
To reduce the sort of confusion that has frustrated many travelers since Safe Travels got underway, future requirements pertaining to vaccinated travelers should be applicable statewide, if at all possible. If home rule allows counties to opt in and out, their respective decisions should be based on set thresholds for infection caseloads and hospitalization counts.
Also, it follows that Hawaii should work in tandem with other governments, along with tourism stakeholders, in development of a vaccine passport for individuals who qualify for less-restrictive travel entry. Lt. Gov. Josh Green is rightly pushing to pursue passport possibilities, but his advocacy to lift interisland COVID pre-testing/quarantine as early as April 1 — followed by May 1 for trans-Pacific travel — is an ambitious timeline that will need wide buy-in.
Many uncertainties are still swirling about the pandemic, but Hawaii should forge forward deliberately and without undue haste in establishing vaccination as a COVID shield on par with pre-travel testing.