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Editorial: Don’t falter in pandemic fight

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There is some hope to take away after slogging through another week of the seemingly endless pandemic — signs that it will end, at least in ways that matter most.

The reality check can’t be ignored, though. Reaching the finish line will depend on everyone, from the leadership at the top on down, keeping eyes on the prize and staying focused on a clear, unified message. Some of that has been missing lately.

Hawaii came frighteningly close to becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19 hospitalizations. Residents who once saw three-digit case counts as disastrous were stunned to see the delta surge of infections drive daily counts past 1,000.

Now the disease seems headed on a downward trend. Real numbers, from the seven-day average case totals to the rate of tests that come back positive, are showing improvement.

The independent Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group (HiPAM) developed mathematical models it used to project last week that infection counts will continue to subside.

Nationally, too, the COVID-19 Forecast Hub, a research consortium, forecast that the latest surge, fueled by the virus’ delta variant, has peaked and that the feared winter wave of the disease may be not occur, except in isolated hot spots.

But here’s another reality check. Dr. Libby Char, director of the state Health Department, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast last week that it’s far too soon to relax. The COVID-19 strain on intensive-care units and the death toll is still high, Char said. And on Friday, two of the nine reported fatalities were patients in their 20s, a distressing sign.

Even the overall numbers, though settling lower in the three-digit range, still present an unacceptable risk to the population, vaccinated or otherwise. The state needs to beat infections back to the lower two-digit daily numbers, not settle for a plateau where it is now.

Given the islands’ position out in the Pacific, with some controls placed at the state’s entry points, local behavior on-island is the paramount concern. But enforcing good behavior requires a broad understanding of the reasons for the rules.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for the general public to assess how well Hawaii is doing, since the once-rigorous “tier system,” which governed activities and gathering sizes allowed, was put in mothballs.

Instead of using a color-coded matrix as guide, restrictions are being authorized a month at a stretch. The City and County of Honolulu, for example, just extended rules on social-gathering sizes (10 indoors, 25 outdoors) for another four weeks.

When pressed, Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he consults with Gov. David Ige and with health officials on what next steps should look like. The reason the tiers no longer exist to define how open Oahu can be, he said, is because vaccines, nonexistent when the tiers were developed, now can help tamp down the spread of COVID-19 without being too restrictive.

Right. But vaccines, powerful as they are, should be paired with good public participation in other mitigating measures to have the optimal effect. That means the uneven rules must make sense to people, but so far, none of the top elected officials, Blangiardi included, have worked out clear guidance on why people must follow them.

Instead, there have been questions with no good answers. To cite just one example: Why can’t some organized events happen within safety protocols? There are reasons, to be sure, including challenges of enforcement, and the mayor is correct that now, when health metrics are still precarious, is probably the worst time to leave such a vulnerability open.

But he, and others, could do a far better job of delivering a rationale. “We’ll discuss every four weeks, and then decide” is not enlisting enough people in what has to be an all-hands-on-deck project.

While correct on the larger framework to rein in social gatherings, the governor and mayors need another reality check: Churches should not be generally exempt from these rules. They contribute to community spread of COVID-19, as several of the state’s cluster reports have shown.

The congregations would argue that gathering is central to their constitutional rights to worship, but there can be reasonable adaptations. Some churches have found solutions: safer, outdoor venues; spacing out their seating; and having more frequent but smaller services. Churches are central elements in the community and as such, need to be responsible and accountable, too.

As for the general prognosis for the community, Health Director Char acknowledged the breathing room Hawaii’s restrictions have achieved so far, but underscored the crucial need for caution.

“We’re still way up here,” she said, her hand raised to eye level. “I’m worried that we’ll plateau at this point and never come down to our baseline.”

Char likes to say that she stays away from politics and sticks to the facts. And those facts show that vaccinations, gathering-size limits and hygiene protocols work — a message that needs to be heard loudly and clearly.

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