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Hundreds testify on Oahu’s COVID-19 vaccine programs

                                People gathered Thursday at the entrance to City Hall, listening to testimony. People also protested in front of City Hall about new mandates.
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People gathered Thursday at the entrance to City Hall, listening to testimony. People also protested in front of City Hall about new mandates.

Hundreds of people Thursday testified virtually at a City Council committee meeting against urging the state to create a digital health card system that establishments with higher risk of COVID-19 transmission, such as restaurants and bars, could use to confirm patrons’ vaccination status as an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

The testimony largely became a critique of the city’s new Safe Access O‘ahu program, which would require patrons at establishments such as restaurants, movie theaters and gyms to have a negative COVID-19 test within the past 48 hours or show proof of a vaccination starting Sept. 13.

A strong majority of those who testified were against the Safe Access O‘ahu program, expressing that it was curtailing their right to decide whether to take the vaccine.

“I am not yet convinced that the vaccine is safe and effective,” said one testifier, Jason Raken.

“This is not the government’s place in a free society.”

Mayor Rick Blangiardi made an appearance at the meeting to give an update on the city’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, which also included mandating proof of vaccination for all city employees.

“I mandated vaccinations for all the men and women who work for the City and County, because first and foremost, they deserve a safe working environment,” he said.

For the first time, Blangiardi also shared data about the number of city employees vaccinated.

Of the roughly 10,300 city employees, 8,840 are fully vaccinated or have at least taken one dose.

Four hundred city employees did not respond, but of that group, Blangiardi said that most were on extended leave and that they would need to respond as they return to work.

Nine hundred employees were given medical or religious exemptions.

Only 49 people refused to be vaccinated under any circumstance.

Blangiardi said enforcement of the mandate already has started, and a first letter was issued Thursday to those employees who refuse to be vaccinated. Failure to comply could result in possible termination or unpaid leave.

“We never wanted to fire one person. That was not the endgame,” Blangiardi said.

“But we have to put a line in the sand that we intend to hold up on what we expect.”

Throughout the pandemic, Blangiardi said, city employees were averaging about 15 cases a month. However, during August that number jumped to over 90.

There was a heated exchange between the mayor and Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who criticized the mayor for being divisive and not listening to the 4-1/2 hours of public testimony offered at the meeting.

“I would just suggest … Mr. Mayor, that you do soften your stance a little bit. You are here to represent all the people of the City and County of Honolulu,” she said.

“I do understand that you have a lot on your plate. But there is good information and good reason for people to be concerned.”

Tsuneyoshi incorrectly told the mayor that the Pfizer vaccine had not been fully approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration so it does not make sense to mandate a vaccine. However, the Pfizer vaccine was fully approved by the FDA Aug. 23 for those 16 years old and above. It is still under emergency use orders for children from age 12 to 15.

Blangiardi responded that hospital workers were fatigued.

“It’s exhausting. It’s gotten to be a breaking point. Everybody who goes to a hospital is well taken care of,” he said.

“But I will tell you, I asked those people who are against doing this to consider the fact that it’s your right not to get vaccinated. And when you get sick, who do you expect to take care of you?”

Tsuneyoshi then told the mayor that he was being divisive.

“You have to realize as a mayor you hold a high level of esteem in these communities,” she said.

“Let’s just not be divisive in our comments of what we’re going to say. And just bring a sense of unity instead of dividing further and further and further.”

The Council Committee on Transportation, Sustainability and Health approved a resolution urging the state to implement a health card. Councilman Augie Tulba voted no.

Councilwoman Radiant Cordero voted yes with reservations, adding that there should be more that the Council can do to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“Other than a lockdown, which is what I probably would have said for us to do, it’s really about … the economic well-being of our whole island and state as well,” she said.

“This is beyond a compromise that I would have ever asked for.”

The Council committee also unanimously approved a resolution urging the state to implement the pre-travel testing program that would require both vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers to produce a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of flying to Hawaii.

The resolutions cannot force the state to take action, but can show the Council’s stance on the key issues. Both measures are expected to be heard before the full Council.

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