Hawaii has reached a significant milestone in the battle against COVID-19, administering more than a half-million vaccines as of Wednesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID data tracker reported 559,118 total shots given in the islands, a rate of 39,489 doses per 100,000 residents — the seventh-highest in the nation. The total includes vaccinations by the military and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It’s a big milestone that keeps us on track to reach 600,000 by April 1, 900,000 by May 1 (and 1.25 million by June 1),” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, adding that the phase 1c category should be immunized by the end of April. “We will make all of those milestones … averaging 10,000 shots a day. All of which bodes very well for us because we’re rapidly increasing our immunity.”
Hawaii started vaccinating residents three months ago — the first shots were administered on Dec. 17 — in the largest public health initiative in state history. A month ago, on Feb. 17, 268,428 doses had been administered.
“The vaccination process has accelerated each month and we will meet the president’s request to open up vaccines to all of our state by May 1 — that’s our goal,” Green said.
Hawaii is behind only Alaska at 47,295 per 100,000; New Mexico at 46,914; South Dakota at 43,518; North Dakota at 42,674; Connecticut at 41,612; and Vermont at 39,530.
“I hope that we can see a really quick uptick in our vaccine allocation and that it won’t take us as long to get to 1 million doses administered as it took us to get to 500,000,” said Health Director Libby Char. “We want to vaccinate as many as we can. We are well on our way.”
An estimated 12.7% of Hawaii’s 1.4 million residents have been fully vaccinated and 21% have received at least one dose, state health data shows. DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr added that the per capita number of those immunized is artificially low because the state’s 1.4 million population includes some 300,000 children 15 and younger not eligible for the vaccine and the military, which is not reflected in the state’s counts.
“As good as the numbers look, we’re doing even better,” he said.
As vaccinations increase, Oahu has moved into the less-restrictive Tier 3 of the four-tier economic recovery plan. Tier 3 permits social and outdoor recreational gatherings of up to 10 people, and lets restaurants seat 10 people at a table, up from five. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi recently modified Tier 3 to allow bars to reopen under the same conditions as restaurants and delay the curfew until midnight.
“It does pose some risk, but our most vulnerable population has been vaccinated and these are calculated risk-benefit decisions,” Green said. “The truth is our positivity rate is very low, which means the viral load is very low on the island so it’s harder to catch COVID. We have the lowest case rate and lowest fatality rate in the country so it stands to reason that we’re able to open up now.”
Tier 4, allowing gatherings of up to 25 people, could be a few weeks away if Oahu’s positivity rate drops to less than 1% and the seven-day average case count falls below 20 per day.
“Within two to four weeks is very possible. On the whole it’s safer and the hospital numbers are down to 23 people,” he said. “The last time it was consistently that low was in June before the first surge.”
An estimated 500 people on Oahu are COVID-19 positive of the 708 active cases statewide, or about 5 people per 10,000.
However, the state recently detected more contagious variants circulating in the islands, posing a threat to even those who have been inoculated.
“Though the viral load is very low an unlucky break could start a small fire. That’s why we still encourage people to wear a mask if they’re in public, even if they’re vaccinated,” Green said.
The state’s pre-travel testing program has been “utterly safe,” with Hawaii seeing 20,000 travelers over the weekend. The next step sometime in May will be issuing vaccine passports, he said.
But health officials caution that vigilance must remain in order to move forward in the economic recovery.
“People don’t seem to be as cautious right now. We’re seeing huge increases in visitor numbers. And it’s not just visitors, it’s also returning residents. People are out and about,” Char said. “There is an upswing in the number of COVID infections in many parts of Europe including Italy, France and Germany. We’re seeing the numbers trending upwards in Brazil, India, parts of the Middle East, including Iran and the Ukraine. We really need to be cautious so that doesn’t happen here.”
Health officials recorded 69 new coronavirus infections, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 28,421 cases. The statewide death toll remains at 451 with no new COVID-19 deaths reported.
The new cases include 38 on Oahu, 23 on Maui, four on Hawaii island, one on Lanai and three Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state, according to health officials. As a result of updated information, state health officials recategorized one case from outside the state to Maui in the count.
The statistics released Wednesday reflect the new infection cases reported to the department on Monday.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s Medical Center is opening a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic at its West Oahu campus on March 24, adding to those at the Blaisdell Concert Hall and Pier 2.
“We’re decreasing our viral load in society by a lot. Every person that doesn’t carry the disease is one less potential spreading event. This is the last stage before we fall into the very rare COVID stage where there are a few cases anywhere,” Green said. “We’re at the threshold. We’re the safest in the country right now and we don’t want people to go much longer without jobs or economic hope.”