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Editorial: All residents must fight delta variant

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Many Hawaii residents had COVID-19 in mind as a new, consequential week began, prompted by a startling rise in case counts due to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. Through the weekend the positive test results had skyrocketed well above 400, falling Monday to 365, dominated by the 222 on Oahu alone.

Some of those on the state’s most populous island stood in line at a free testing site at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in a program extending through this week and possibly longer, for Oahu residents. Others shopped at drugstores for commercial at-home testing kits to check their infection status.

Sadly, still others were admitted to hospitals, and although officials said patients were younger and less severely ill than at the pandemic’s peak, this still heaped worry on loved ones.

And with today’s school opening to in-person learning, the surge in infections also sparked great anxiety in families with children heading back to class.

Almost everyone reeling from the surge is thinking: What do we do about this now? To be sure, there is cause for Hawaii residents to do their part for public health now by reverting to some standard pandemic behaviors, curtailing gatherings and wearing masks in indoor or high-risk areas.

But the No. 1 answer to that question: Get vaccinated.

In a more positive vein, the numbers of those getting vaccinated, a rate that has been dropping for weeks, are ticking up again. On Monday, the state recorded more than 8,000 getting a shot since Friday, the largest jump in several weeks. This needs to keep going.

The reason for the pro-vaccine push — Hawaii health-care employers just announced mandatory vaccines for their workers, and that’s being contemplated for public workers as well — is that it will winnow the field of people vulnerable to infection.

Experts confirm that there are more breakthrough cases of delta infections in people already fully vaccinated than earlier variants of the virus, but not by very much.

A study published July 21 in the New England Journal of Medicine shows a drop in effectiveness of two Pfizer vaccine doses from 93% to 88%, for example, when comparing the delta with the alpha variant, the one originating in the U.K. Still, most have enough immune response to limit any infections to mild disease or no symptoms.

The new problem is that once the immunized person is infected, recent research shows they carry and transmit about the same amount of virus as an unvaccinated patient. And because the delta viral load is so high and its transmission is so efficient, it can easily spread to someone who is unvaccinated — and vulnerable to severe illness.

So far, said Lt. Gov. Josh Green on Monday, Hawaii’s hospitals are reporting that they still have adequate capacity. Some may be postponing elective procedures, but that’s to reserve space in case capacity is needed later, not due to a current crisis, he said.

Green, speaking on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast, said typically 7% of all positive cases end up in the hospital, so it’s wise to be prepared. Case counts hovering around a few hundred can increase exponentially in a few weeks, so the community needs to get this under control.

The lieutenant governor said discussions are ongoing among state and county executives about modest restrictions. If orders do come down from the top, they should aim to constrain the size of social gatherings, at least for now.

It’s critical that the virus be suppressed before it mutates into a deadlier form, one that defeats vaccines.

Government leadership is a crucial element, but there’s no reason to wait. Reining in this surge needs action, starting promptly, and moving from the ground up. It’s called personal responsibility.

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