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Editorial: Vaccinations can ease restrictions

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Stopping the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in some 32,000 infections statewide along with a death toll of more than 475 residents and traumatic upending of Hawaii’s economy, requires using all of the available public health tools.

While wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart from others help reduce the chances of catching the virus or spreading it, the tool proving most effective is full vaccination. Given that COVID-19 can have serious complications — and there’s no way to know how infection will affect an individual, regardless of age or health profile — the most sensible course of action is for all eligible to get in line for vaccination.

With vaccines now readily available through an increasing count of sites — and with nearly 1.2 million shots already in arms — lines are getting shorter. Speaking on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast this week, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said if the current weekly pace of 100,000 shots holds, Hawaii will likely touch the tantalizing border of herd immunity protection in about two months.

Such protection opens the door to a further relaxing of travel restrictions, which is key for significant economic rebound. Also, the collective shielding holds the promise of making the islands eligible for fewer mask-wearing restrictions and a return to group gatherings that more closely resemble pre-coronavirus scenes at sites ranging from concert halls to school yards.

Due to Hawaii’s largely successful efforts in fending off potential surges in sickness, the state is prepping to launch a travel exemption through which, effective May 11, interisland travelers who’ve been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks may bypass Hawaii’s Safe Travels testing and quarantine requirements. However, still-lurking threats, such as those posed by virus variants, should prod us to proceed with a heightened sense of caution.

Last week, the cumulative count of variant infection cases in the isles topped 550. Five different variants have been detected in the state, with the largest share made up of so-called California variants, including B1.429 and B.1.427, which may be more contagious than earlier forms of the coronavirus. Vaccination is essential to curbing the variants, which threaten to reverse Hawaii’s slow-and-steady recovery gains.

Following the initial months of vaccine distribution, in which kupuna were prioritized, it’s a relief that fewer residents in that vulnerable age group are contending with serious illness. Currently, 70% of all new Hawaii COVID-19 cases are made up of residents under age 50 — leading to today’s necessary drive to vaccinate younger residents. While there are fewer deaths, Green said, “we have seen people in their 30s and 40s quite sick in the hospital.”

The scary prospect of long-term, or “long hauler,” health challenges tied to contracting the virus — even if through asymptomatic infection — should be enough to puncture any youthful notion of invulnerability.

Further, the risks of severe illness and death from COVID-19 far outweigh any benefits of natural immunity, which is acquired by getting sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today’s authorized vaccines — none of which contain the live virus — help protect the body by creating an antibody (immune system) response to the virus without sickness.

For the foreseeable future, we must continue to use all of our virus-fighting tools for various functions. Given that the current federal authorization of vaccines hinges on benefits outweighing risks, everyone eligible over age 16 has cogent reason to register for vaccination appointments or head into one of the walk-in sites on a growing list.

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