There’s no sign yet that large numbers of unvaccinated residents have been rushing to pharmacies, clinics and other sites to get COVID-19 shots since the state on Friday unveiled its “Hawaii Got Vaccinated” campaign, replete with prizes and discounts at local businesses. State officials caution that it’s still too early to tell whether the campaign is having an impact, but if Hawaii’s vaccination rate doesn’t increase, it could be a long haul before Hawaii gets back to normal.
Gov. David Ige announced Friday that the state would drop all of its COVID restrictions once 70% of Hawaii residents have been fully vaccinated. Until then residents will still need to wear their masks while grocery shopping, working out in the gym or congregating in the office. Businesses, such as restaurants and arcades, will need to continue to comply with limits on the number of customers they can serve, and trans-Pacific travelers will still have to jump through testing and quarantine requirements when traveling to Hawaii.
Hawaii’s vaccination rate has plummeted in recent weeks, following a national trend. At its peak in April, Hawaii was doing about 32,000 vaccinations a day. That figure has fallen to about 3,100 a day, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with no discernible increase since the campaign launched Friday. At that rate it could be mid-October before the state is free of the complicated tier systems that regulate activities.
Meanwhile, the majority of states have dropped restrictions, and most of the country is expected to be back to normal by the Fourth of July. Hawaii is one of just two states, the other being California, where everyone is still required to wear a mask indoors. Most states have dropped the restriction altogether, while a dozen more require only people who are not vaccinated to wear masks, according to The New York Times, which has been tracking restrictions in all of the states.
States that haven’t fully reopened, like Hawaii, have set targets. On Monday, for example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he will lift virtually all COVID restrictions once 70% of the state, ages 18 and older, has received at least one dose of the vaccine — a significantly lower target than Hawaii’s and one that New York could reach in about a week.
By comparison, Hawaii’s 70% benchmark applies to the state’s entire population. That means 82% of all eligible residents, those age 12 and up, will need to be fully vaccinated.
Overall, about 150,000 Hawaii residents still need to initiate the vaccination process to reach the 70% mark. Currently, 53% of the population is fully vaccinated, and 60% has received at least one shot.
Hawaii’s COVID policies have been conservative throughout the pandemic, frustrating businesses. But they’ve also contributed to the state’s low case counts. Hawaii’s death rate from COVID is the lowest in the country and about five times lower than the national average of about 182 deaths per 100,000 people.
Hawaii isn’t like most states, of course, just by virtue of its location. Its isolation has allowed it to better control its borders, and the ongoing restrictions, in part, have been fueled by public discomfort at having visitor numbers quickly bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. And while much of the country has forgone hopes of achieving widespread herd immunity, state officials continue to see it as achievable in Hawaii where vaccine resistance isn’t nearly as high as in other parts of the country.
The state’s new thresholds for easing restrictions are the points at which the state is willing to take on the increased risk of added travel, said Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. Other restrictions are set to be eased once 60% of the population is fully vaccinated.
In addition to an education and outreach campaign, Hawaii joined other states this month in offering a lottery with prizes for people who have been vaccinated. Some of the prizes include 1 million HawaiianMiles from Hawaiian Airlines, distributed as 10 prizes of 100,000 each; a trip to Las Vegas for two; and free Zippy’s meals for a year.
The state is set to announce the first winners as soon as Friday, awarding 100,000 Hawaiian Miles and round-trip airfare for two on Alaska Airlines. Prizes, including some that haven’t been announced yet, are scheduled to be awarded throughout the coming weeks. There’s also a growing list of discounts at local stores for vaccinated residents.
Baehr said that since the campaign was announced, a flood of businesses have joined in to offer additional discounts and awards.
Baehr said he realizes that people were tiring of the restrictions, but that Hawaii is still reporting COVID deaths, including three on Sunday, while infection rates among young people have increased.
“We are all tired of it. We are all tired of the masks. We are all tired of the restrictions. … But we have come so far, and to still have to report three people recently passed away, that’s tragic,” he said. “So let’s get there, everybody. We’re not that far away.”