Just a few months ago, when the state’s COVID-19 case counts were far lower, it appeared possible that Gov. David Ige’s plan to lift all restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus could soon be carried out — when herd immunity was achieved, with 70% of the state’s population fully vaccinated.
The double thwack of the highly contagious delta variant’s surge and the less-than-brisk pace of vaccination rates have dashed hopes to achieve that plan in the short term. The state’s full-inoculation rate is approaching 62% of the total population, or 72% of those eligible for shots (ages 12 and older).
Given that the delta variant has caused cases in the islands to soar to twice the highest level seen during the height of the pandemic last year, it’s alarming that Honolulu is facing the possibility of a sudden shortage of county-employed first responders — police, firefighters, paramedics and other workers — due to a reluctance to get inoculated against COVID-19.
Honolulu Hale’s vaccine mandate requires all employees to be vaccinated, unless granted a medical or religious exemption. If an exemption request is denied, the employee has five calendar days to initiate the vaccination process or be placed on leave without pay until his or her employment status is determined, according to the county policy.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi has pushed back the initial compliance deadline, which was Monday, by one week. The unvaccinated who don’t submit an exemption request by then will be placed on leave without pay and possibly terminated. That’s a tough, yet justifiable, stance.
Rooted in public-service employment is a commitment to the mission of protecting public safety. Clearly, prompt and reliable access to first-responder services is a top priority, especially at this perilous time.
There should be no further delay in complying with the mandate — not with case counts climbing and the recent warning from the state Health Department’s chief, Dr. Libby Char, about a looming health care disaster due to the threat of an exponential spread of the delta variant. Given the close-contact nature of a first-responder’s job, the city’s vaccine mandate is reasonable and necessary.
Among the latest signs of trouble: On Monday, rising hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients left the Queen’s Health Systems with no available intensive- care beds. At the statewide level, roughly 90% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated — further evidence that the vaccine is safely and successfully fending off serious illness.
On Friday, in a wrongheaded response to the city’s vaccine mandate, attorneys who said they represented more than 1,200 first responders filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, asking that the directive be voided.
In a statement, attorneys Michael J. Green, Shawn A. Luiz and Kristin Coccaro said “workers want reasonable testing mandates, not vaccine mandates.”
Further, they said: “There are personal rights that people are espousing. They don’t want this medicine put in their bodies before the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approves it.”
If that’s the case, resistance should dissipate upon full FDA approval, which is expected in the next few weeks at the earliest.
Instead of butting heads, the city, its workers and their union should be working together in hot pursuit of a workable plan to keep essential public services — and none are more essential than health and safety — at full strength. The vaccine mandate will help ensure that our vital first-responder teams remain robust and not depleted by the virus.