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Higher vaccination rates hold key to reopening in Hawaii

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    Dr. Libby Char speaks on Spotlight Hawaii.

State health officials are ramping up efforts to increase COVID vaccination rates in Hawaii, a metric that policymakers say will increasingly factor into decisions about how soon Hawaii businesses and residents can get back to normal life. Most social gatherings are still limited to a maximum of 10 people, indoor organized sports are prohibited and restaurants, bars and retail outlets continue to struggle to survive amid capacity limits.

As residents head into Memorial Day weekend, the Department of Health has set up pop-up vaccination sites on Oahu, Hawaii island, Kauai and Maui, adding to the growing list of pharmacies, grocery stores, hospitals and clinics where people can get vaccinated. State health officials are also doing outreach in ZIP codes with low vaccination rates and recharging their media campaign.

“We are going to excite and engage people,” Health Director Dr. Libby Char said on Spotlight Hawaii. “We have a big campaign coming up that is starting this weekend. … There is going to be a lot more (public service announcements) coming out. We have this enhanced media campaign. I think it’s going to be exciting.”

Char stopped short of saying the state would engage in the types of efforts underway in other states to incentivize residents to get vaccinated against the deadly disease, such as offering cash rewards and gift certificates. New Jersey has been offering a “shot and a beer” for those 21 and up. New York recently announced that residents age 12 to 17 who get vaccinated will be entered into a raffle to win a full scholarship to New York public universities.

Hawaii’s vaccination strategy most likely will remain focused on education.

“It is OK to have questions, and we want to make sure we answer those questions so people can be confident in what their decision is and be confident that the vaccine is safe,” Char said. “And gosh, we are seeing now, it works.”

Vaccines have been available to all residents 16 and older for nearly a month and half now, while eligibility was expanded to children as young as 12 in mid-May.

While more than 90% of adults 65 and older have received at least one shot, according to Department of Health data, that figure declines precipitously with age. Only half of residents ages 30 to 39 have gotten at least one shot, and 41% of residents 18 to 29, according to Friday statistics.

Overall, 51% of Hawaii residents are fully vaccinated.

The high vaccination rate among older residents has brought down hospitalization and death rates, but health officials say the new variants seem to be making younger people sicker. This week a man in his 40s with no underling health problems died of COVID.

“We don’t want to see anybody getting sick and dying of COVID,” Char said.

Hawaii’s case counts are declining thanks to the vaccine rollout. But Char said it could still be July or August before the state lifts its indoor mask mandate. She’s hoping to see vaccination rates between 70% and 80%, which, based on the current coronavirus variants, is expected to largely curb the virus’ ability to spread.

Char also urged Hawaii residents to make sure they receive their second COVID shot. She said that there were so many “breakthrough” COVID cases in people who had only received one shot that the Health Department stopped counting. Health officials have recorded 110 breakthrough cases in residents who are fully vaccinated, a rate of less than 1%.

While a small number of people have still contracted COVID after getting vaccinated, scientists say they rarely come down with serious illness or die.

State Department of Health officials reported 44 new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections Friday, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 36,076 cases. There were 24 new infection cases on Oahu, seven on Maui, five on Hawaii island, one on Molokai and seven Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state.

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