With 1 million shots now in arms across Hawaii, optimists say that the state has just passed the halfway point toward essentially crushing COVID-19’s pandemic threat in the islands. However, despite mounting evidence that doses are effectively protecting against infection, some vaccine hesitancy lingers.
In Maui County, for instance, health officials said they expected about 900 appointments to be scheduled last Friday, but only about 500 people signed up.
In addition to community outreach to step up public health education and alleviate undue worry, another imminent state initiative holds enormous potential to spur COVID immunizations: allowing interisland travelers who’ve been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks to bypass state Safe Travels testing and quarantine requirements.
Speaking on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast this week, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the travel exemption could be up and running in early May. That’s a target that Gov. David Ige should officially declare and sanction, so that travelers, the tourism industry and support industries can ramp up.
A digitized program would likely require a traveler to upload a picture of his or her official vaccine card, which provides vaccine lot numbers and dates. The state would engage software companies to ensure that a presented card is legitimate. For travelers without smartphones, a physical card may be accepted.
While the proposed “Safe Travels Exemption” program is not risk-free, falsifying the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine card is a felony. Also, there’s some assurance in that, according to Green’s projections, if vaccine delivery stays on its robust course, by early July, Hawaii will likely achieve herd immunity protection, with the exception of teens and younger children.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, residents cannot freely crisscross the state without undergoing time-sensitive pretravel testing, which can cost upwards of $100 per test. Such screening, which can be cumbersome, has helped keep the count of COVID-19 cases here low. Now, with the current Safe Travels effort serving as an effective screening tool for six months, it’s time to move forward with options for less restrictive travel.
As the new exemption program’s launch gets underway, the state should push hard to swiftly follow up with an expansion to include trans-Pacific travelers. Among the risks tied to delay is a drop in visitor traffic that Hawaii can ill afford after the industry flatlined for much of last year.
However, adding travelers from the U.S. mainland could be problematic as there’s no centralized federal vaccine database. Instead, nearly every state is collecting information in their own registries. Trying to come up with common standards, governments, tech companies and other businesses are testing various versions of so-called voluntary vaccine passports.
In addition to verifying full vaccination, the screening mechanism must also shield collected data from use for sales or marketing purposes, or sharing with a third party. So far, only New York has introduced a working credential. It can be scanned or printed out to gain entry to large venues such as Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden and other public venues.
Likely on the horizon for Hawaii is debate about whether a similar strategy should be employed here to ease pandemic-related restrictions for venues such as concert and convention facilities and for large-draw events, such as the Honolulu Marathon.
Given the spread of COVID-19 variants and other virus-related uncertainties, Hawaii is still vulnerable to surges that could quickly overwhelm health care resources. Prompt rollout of the Safe Travels Exemption card can serve as an incentive to lower vaccine hesitancy here, and as a much-needed means to help further economic recovery.