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Calls for more COVID vaccinations failing to get through to Hawaii residents

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    Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he doesn't want to revert to more restrictive coronavirus measures as the state on Thursday marked 243 new coronavirus cases, the highest tracked since January of this year. Blangiardi said unvaccinated residents, who make up about 40.5% of the state's population, are opening themselves up to getting very sick.

No matter the topic, Gov. David Ige regularly ends each news conference by urging people to take advantage of free COVID-19 vaccines across the state.

And on Thursday, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi warned unvaccinated Oahu residents they are likely to become infected and get “very sick,” especially from the more virulent delta variant.

But with eight straight days of triple-digit COVID-19 cases statewide as of Thursday — and a third of Oahu adults still refusing to get vaccinated — the powers of persuasion wielded by governor’s and mayor’s offices may have reached their limits as Hawaii only inches toward its goal of seeing 70% of the population vaccinated.

Through no fault of their own, there seems to be little more Ige and Blangiardi can say to break through to those who continue to refuse vaccinations, said political analyst Neal Milner.

“They’re tapped out,” Milner said.

“I’m not sure how much more in front of the public the mayor and governor can get. This is a fairly straightforward issue. We’ve run out of top-down messaging options from people like the mayor and governor. I don’t think that’s going to move the needle.”

Blangiardi told reporters Thursday that his administration is working to persuade union leaders to get more of their members vaccinated, but there is no “clear-cut strategy” to influence the remaining Oahu residents who are resisting immunization.

“If you’re not going to protect yourself, you’re probably going to get it,” Blangiardi said. “(They are) holding themselves open now to getting very sick. … It’s really hard to say what’s going through people’s minds.”

Studies have shown the coronavirus vaccines, which received emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to be highly safe and effective.

In response to a question from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Blangiardi said people tell him they distrust the vaccines because they have not been fully approved by the FDA — even after government officials have “begged, pleaded and cajoled” them to get vaccinated.

State Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), Senate minority floor leader, called the lack of full FDA approval “the main one” cited by people who refuse to get vaccinated, followed by a list of unproved conspiracy theories being spread on social media that he called “rubbish.”

They include the belief that COVID-19 vaccines contain stem cells from aborted fetuses and that the vaccines are a ruse to implant a microchip.

“There are so many people listening to misinformation,” Fevella said. “They listen to social media as news and as fact.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki (D, Downtown-Kakaako- McCully) plans to reconvene Aug. 2 the House Select Committee on COVID-19, which recessed on the eve of the last legislative session.

Saiki believes the public and decision-makers need more information about Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases, including how many unvaccinated people became infected and on contact tracing to identify where and how they were exposed to the virus.

“The governor needs to provide more data on the source of these cases and the reason why the numbers are increasing,” Saiki said. “I have not heard that kind of messaging. I have received some calls and concerns about the lack of information.”

State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D, Kailua-Kaneohe), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said members of the Legislature also need to keep urging the unvaccinated to get their shots or risk overtaxing Hawaii’s hospitals and health care system “and burning out our hospital staff.”

“It’s very important for our leaders, including among the Legislature, to convey a sense of urgency on the vaccinations,” Keohokalole said. “The numbers are worrisome.”

He called Ige’s relatively conservative approach to easing social distancing and gathering limits — compared with mainland communities — “justified, especially with school about to start.”

Even well shy of the 70% vaccination benchmark, with 59.5% of the state’s population fully vaccinated as of Thursday, Honolulu moved into a less restrictive Tier 5 this month before the latest run of triple-digit cases.

Blangiardi said Thursday that he doesn’t “want to go back.”

Asked by the Star-Advertiser whether Honolulu loosened COVID-19 restrictions too soon, Blangiardi said, “I do not think we went too fast.”

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