Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, in the face of rising case counts, has set forth his intention to keep Oahu operating under Tier 3 rather than falling back to Tier 2.
Blangiardi on Tuesday said he sent a request to Gov. David Ige asking that the criteria for Tier 3 be increased to a seven-day average case count of 50 to 100, which is what it currently is for Tier 2.
“We feel very confident on where we are in regards to vaccinations, our hospitalizations,” said Blangiardi at a Kakaako news conference on pothole repairs. “Nobody wants to see anybody die from this, but from a health standpoint, Hawaii is doing very, very well against any national norms. … So we’re trying to move forward here under the circumstances.”
Without intervention, Oahu was well on its way to returning to Tier 2, with consistent, seven-day averages above 50 for the past week.
On Monday, Blangiardi said he was “dead set” against moving back to Tier 2, given that the metrics did not account for the vaccinations currently underway. On Tuesday he added that he felt vaccinations had reached a critical mass and that he was banking on expanded capacity, along with an increased supply on the way.
“If we can just stay in the range that we’re at, if we continue to vaccinate like this, we’re going to pull through,” he said. “We’re in a very different set of circumstances at this time now than we were just 90 days ago.”
Blangiardi said residents should keep up the good behaviors that got Oahu to Tier 3 but that a broader interpretation of public health needed to include the challenges of economic recovery.
Oahu moved into the less restrictive Tier 3 of the city’s four-tier economic recovery plan Feb. 25 after being in Tier 2 since late October.
Tier 3 permits social and outdoor recreational gatherings of up to 10, and restaurants to seat up to 10 per table, up from five in Tier 2, as well as gyms to operate at 50% instead of 25% capacity.
Blangiardi in March announced modifications to Tier 3, which allows bars to reopen under the same conditions as restaurants and extends the curfew until midnight, as well as outdoor youth sports to resume next week.
In addition, he is allowing outdoor weddings on Oahu to resume, with a maximum of 100 people, under Tier 3, as long as rules such as face coverings, temperature checks and distancing of dancers are followed.
Blangiardi said he felt the data and science were on his side, but the decision was up to Ige and the state Health Department.
Ige’s office, when asked, did not say whether the request would be approved.
Cases on the rise
The Department of Health on Tuesday reported 61 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing Hawaii’s total since the start of the pandemic to 30,287 cases. There were no new deaths, keeping the state’s death toll at 467.
Average daily cases for Oahu have been on an upswing, with a 42% jump over two weeks. For every 100,000 people who live in Honolulu, there was an average of six newly reported cases per day for the seven-day period ending Sunday.
For Tim Brown, an infectious-disease modeler and senior fellow at the East-West Center, this is exactly the wrong time to be easing restrictions.
“I’m concerned because we are continuing to see this community spread,” he said. “Vaccine-wise, we’re still far from where I’d like to be.”
To date, Hawaii has administered at least one dose to 30% of its total population of about 1.4 million.
Brown pointed out that many seniors in Honolulu have yet to be vaccinated, with about 70% of those 75 and up vaccinated, 60% of those 60 and up, and that they are at high risk.
Also concerning is that the highest number of COVID-19 cases is among the younger set, with 42% among those ages 18 to 39.
“Taking restaurants back to 100% capacity, opening bars at all, I think, was a huge mistake,” said Brown. “No. 1, the majority of them are not particularly well ventilated in this town; No. 2, there’s alcohol involved and people are going there to socialize and meet people, and mask-wearing is not a strong consideration in those settings.”
Meanwhile, Brown said he’s observed nearby restaurants packed, at full capacity, without enough masking, and seen photos of people in Waikiki, such as one published recently in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, showing people at close proximity without masks.
Waiting just another month or month and a half would be ideal for easing restrictions, he said, when up to 50% to 60% of the population should be vaccinated. Herd immunity is reached when at least 70% of the population is vaccinated — but possibly higher, at 80% to 85% — with the presence of new variants.
“What frustrates me is we are so close,” he said.
There’s also the issue of vaccine hesitancy among those who have been eligible for quite some time but who have not yet gotten vaccinated, Brown said.
Blangiardi’s request to stay in Tier 3, however, received support from Honolulu Councilman Augie Tulba, who said pandemic-related restrictions have had a devastating impact on the economy.
“Oahu can’t afford to slide back to Tier 2,” said Tulba in a news release. “As a community, we’ve worked extremely hard to get to Tier 3, adhere to health and safety mitigations, and ensure we get vaccinated when we are eligible. I support any effort from the Mayor that helps us to move forward and reopen in a safe way.”
The state Health Department, meanwhile, said it would meet President Joe Biden’s mandate of opening up eligibility for a COVID-19 vaccine to all adults by April 19.
This week the department was allocated 90,080 doses, and next week it expects another 76,000 doses. These numbers do not include the increasing vaccine allocation to the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which CVS’ Longs Drugs participates in.
“This does not mean everyone will be able to get vaccinated on April 19 and people must continue to be patient,” said DOH in a statement. “Supply still does not meet the tremendous demand for vaccine.”
In the latest data available, DOH said it had administered 681,928 COVID-19 vaccine doses, up more than 7,000 from the previous day.
On Monday, DOH opened vaccine eligibility to a broader range of essential workers, including clergy and those in banking and finance, construction, retail, information technology, communications and media industries. Previously, it had been prioritizing workers in hotels, restaurants and bars.
As of Monday, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties had opened up vaccine eligibility to residents 16 and older.