Due to circulating variants and persistent vaccine hesitancy, the brass ring of nationwide herd immunity appears to be out of reach for the foreseeable future. However, in a handful of states — Hawaii, included — where willingness to get vaccinated is polling high, significant community protection from the virus remains attainable.
With a total of 1.2 million shots in arms so far, Hawaii needs to administer at least another million to reach the 80% threshold for immunity shielding. That could clear the way for safely allowing fewer restrictions on travel as well as easier access to both small and large-scale gatherings and events. Much of that, in turn, could help further spur welcome economic recovery.
It’s encouraging that about half of the state’s residents have received at least one vaccine dose. But it’s also alarming that this week is the first since vaccines became available that, due to declining demand, Hawaii has more than enough doses to cover scheduled appointments.
In response, the state is rightly ramping up efforts to bring the free shots to harder-to-reach populations — such as those without easy access to transportation or technology needed to make online appointments — and to provide ample public health education for those still on the fence about vaccination.
Speaking on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast this week, Gov. David Ige touted the vaccines as largely safe and effective, pointing out that 95% of the health care workers here “took it as quickly as they could” as a personal health safeguard. It’s also a means to move toward herd immunity’s “new normal,” which is expected to include some long-awaited activities, such as a return to sporting events with spectators nearby.
According to Ige, 90% of our community is now within 5 miles of a vaccination site. That means accessibility grumbling should mostly fall by the wayside. Further, outreach is expanding with pop-up clinics, such as one held last week at a Kalihi public- housing project. And walk-in availability is underway in some vaccine centers, including at Blaisdell Concert Hall, and the list of pharmacies and groceries offering shots is growing.
Due to Hawaii’s largely successful efforts in fending off overwhelming virus surges, the state is launching a travel exemption through which, effective Tuesday, interisland travelers who’ve been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks may bypass COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements. Surely, for many residents, the “Safe Travels Exemption” program serves as an incentive to sign up for a shot.
Hawaii should consider adding incentives, such one in place in New York and San Francisco in which fully vaccinated individuals get a credential to gain uncomplicated access to pro baseball venues. Ticket- holders without the credential must undergo COVID-19 testing within a set timeframe. This evolving strategy could be employed here, too, at sports and concert arenas and convention facilities.
While vaccination is the most effective tool in our coronavirus-fighting kit, adherence to longstanding directives is still crucial to lasting gains. In that regard, Kauai’s recent surge in cases stands as a cautionary tale.
In April, as the Garden Isle loosened travel restrictions — following months of reporting little to no new daily COVID-19 cases — an ongoing monthly spot check for correct mask-wearing, which had peaked at 94% in March, slid to 73%. Then, in a three-week span ending this week, Kauai’s tally of confirmed cases since the pandemic began had jumped by 90 — an increase of 30%.
Herd immunity is within Hawaii’s grasp, if the push forward is urgent and — as the new normal slowly takes shape — we continue to keep up our guard against a super-spreader threat that shows no sign of fully disappearing.