The rising delta variant — rated by the World Health Organization as the fastest-moving and hardiest coronavirus strain yet, with potential to “pick off” the most vulnerable — makes it more urgent than ever that all eligible people here get fully vaccinated, especially given how close Hawaii is to finally getting back to normal.
Experts say this variant, first identified in India, spreads more easily because of mutations that make it better at latching onto cells in our bodies. Across the U.S., the delta variant made up just 10% of new cases two weeks ago, but has since jumped to 20%. So far, only four cases have been identified in Hawaii, but due to the state’s variant screening process, that count is essentially a snapshot of what was occurring about three weeks ago.
The best strategy for preventing outbreaks and surges that could reverse hard-fought public health gains and pandemic-related economic recovery is a redoubled push toward the shielding of herd immunity. This becomes an imperative as the state prepares to open more fully after July Fourth — a cause for both celebration and caution.
In anticipation of hitting the 60% vaccination milestone within the next couple of weeks, Gov. David Ige announced Thursday that on July 8, all counties will further ease restrictions on travel and indoor and outdoor gatherings. Most notably: Starting then, all fully vaccinated U.S. travelers into Hawaii — nonresidents and residents alike — will be able to bypass COVID pretesting/quarantine by showing proof of vaccination.
And upon hitting 70%, the state’s Safe Travels program — and all other limits imposed to curb the spread the virus — will be lifted.
While the return of less-cumbersome travel and larger social gatherings are worthy of applause, the longevity of back-to-normal status could hinge on securing a significant increase in the state’s vaccination rate. Health authorities maintain that we need to reach a statewide fully vaccinated threshold of about 80% to get firm control of COVID-19.
With about 57% of the state’s population now fully vaccinated, it’s worrisome — and somewhat exasperating — that, despite hundreds of sites offering free shots, the pace of vaccination has been slowing. In May, an average of 72,000 doses were administered each week. So far, this month’s weekly average has plummeted to about 36,000.
The state and private-sector partners are sensibly prioritizing easy access to shots in communities beset by convenience hurdles, as well as public-information campaigns addressing vaccine hesitancy issues. Also in the works: Officials are scheduling shot clinics at businesses and for groups that are seeing higher-than-average unvaccinated tallies. Employers and organizations of all sorts should actively encourage inoculation.
On the U.S. mainland, some states recently lifted nearly all pandemic restrictions because at least 70% of their adults have received at least one dose. Ige, meanwhile, has set the bar higher — including in Hawaii’s total even children age 11 and younger, who are currently ineligible to be vaccinated.
In a meeting with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s editorial board this week, Ige said: “I know it would be easier if we cut the data differently, but I think it would miss the most important reason for reporting on those numbers. … If we can get to 70% of everyone in our community vaccinated, then we get much, much closer to herd immunity,” which would likely bring a lasting drop in case counts.
Given Hawaii’s limited health care resources, along with the surfacing of the delta and other variants, the state is wise to proceed carefully — rather than rolling the dice with fewer safety checks in place.
Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has expressed “cautious optimism” that young children will be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine by Thanksgiving. In the meantime, he has rightly pointed out that more shots in arms among the rest of us can go a long way to crushing still-looming virus threats.