Hawaii should see a precipitous drop in coronavirus cases in the next couple of weeks now that 58% of the adult population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green. And while herd immunity appears increasingly out of reach on the mainland, Green expects that Hawaii will reach that threshold as children increasingly become eligible for the vaccine.
“I think we really are on the way to being one of the best-vaccinated states,” Green told Spotlight Hawaii on Monday.
Hawaii ranks third in the nation for the number of adults who have received at least shot, according to The New York Times, which, based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been tracking vaccination rates in all states. About 41% of Hawaii residents are fully vaccinated.
Green says he expects the state’s case count to follow trends similar to places like Israel, where the number of coronavirus cases plummeted after 55% of the population received at least one shot.
State Department of Health officials Monday reported 61 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing Hawaii’s total since the start of the pandemic to 33,267 cases. The cases include 36 on Oahu, 11 on Maui, six on Kauai and eight Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state. The statistics reflect the new infection cases reported to the department Saturday. The state’s seven-day average case count is 82.
Public health experts had hoped earlier in the pandemic that the country would quickly achieve herd immunity with the rollout of vaccines. But new, more contagious variants and the slow pace of shots in some states has made achieving that threshold, where the virus lacks enough hosts to spread easily, increasingly doubtful.
Green, who is also a medical doctor, said he still thinks that goal is achievable for Hawaii, however. Health experts have said the threshold for herd immunity might be reached when about 75% to 80% of a population is vaccinated. The rate has been adjusted upward to account for more contagious variants.
About 73% of adults 18 and older in Hawaii have so far been vaccinated, but the state is increasingly running up against vaccination hesitancy among the remainder of the population. Now that vaccines are being opened up to increasing numbers of children and teens, Green said, herd immunity is more achievable.
On Monday the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for kids age 12 to 15. The vaccine had already been authorized for people 16 and older. The latest authorization opens up the vaccine to about 55,000 more people in Hawaii.
“We’re very, very excited about being able to vaccinate a larger segment of our population,” said Libby Char, state health director, during a Zoom news conference Monday following the announcement.
Children age 12 to 15 could be able to start getting shots within days.
The approval boosts hopes that schools and school-based activities will largely return to normal when the next school year starts in August. To try to boost school vaccination rates, state officials are deploying mobile vaccination clinics to public schools.
There are other signs of a return to normalcy. Staring today, Hawaii residents who have been fully vaccinated will be able to fly between islands without having to take a COVID-19 test to avoid quarantining for 10 days. Travelers must wait two weeks after their last dose before flying. Children under age 5 are also exempt from the testing requirement. Green said that by July he expects travelers from the mainland who have been vaccinated to also be able to freely enter the state without being subject to the testing and quarantine rules.
Green signaled that the shift now is toward reopening.
“I think people are right to have grown tired of talking about tier systems and talking further restrictions, when it has been months and months where our hospitals have been more than available for anyone that is sick,” said Green. “In truth, there are a lot of illnesses that are more impactful than COVID because we have moved past the crisis.”