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Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green predicts COVID restrictions could be lifted soon

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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The seven-day average case count was nearly 900 at the start of September and has since fallen to 259. On Monday the state reported 195 new infections and three COVID-19-related deaths. Above, Nathan Reyes was tested for COVID-19 on Monday by Dinah Yanza at the Waikiki Shell.
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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

The seven-day average case count was nearly 900 at the start of September and has since fallen to 259. On Monday the state reported 195 new infections and three COVID-19-related deaths. Above, Nathan Reyes was tested for COVID-19 on Monday by Dinah Yanza at the Waikiki Shell.

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                About 90% of Hawaii residents eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine have received at least one shot. Above, Do Hi Kim received a coronavirus shot Monday from Dr. Fatema Merchant at the Kaiser vaccination clinic at the Nuuanu YMCA.
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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

About 90% of Hawaii residents eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine have received at least one shot. Above, Do Hi Kim received a coronavirus shot Monday from Dr. Fatema Merchant at the Kaiser vaccination clinic at the Nuuanu YMCA.

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The seven-day average case count was nearly 900 at the start of September and has since fallen to 259. On Monday the state reported 195 new infections and three COVID-19-related deaths. Above, Nathan Reyes was tested for COVID-19 on Monday by Dinah Yanza at the Waikiki Shell.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                About 90% of Hawaii residents eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine have received at least one shot. Above, Do Hi Kim received a coronavirus shot Monday from Dr. Fatema Merchant at the Kaiser vaccination clinic at the Nuuanu YMCA.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said that if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to decline, he predicts the county mayors will push for most pandemic- related restrictions to be lifted in a couple of weeks. He also said it was frustrating that the governor on Friday didn’t define any metrics that would pave the way toward a full reopening.

“We are really rapidly approaching a time when we should return to normal, both socially and economically,” Green said Monday on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” livestream program.

On Friday, Gov. David Ige announced that he was extending his executive order for another two months that imposes restrictions on social gatherings, businesses and travel, and includes indoor mask mandates and vaccine requirements for government workers. Implementation of the order varies in some respects by county.

The governor did not lay out specific criteria that need to be met to lift his order. The open-ended nature of the restrictions has caused frustration among some, including fans who want to watch University of Hawaii football games in the outdoor stadium.

Jodi Leong, a spokeswoman for Ige, said the governor and mayors meet several times a week to discuss COVID-19 case numbers and hospital capacity, and “will make decisions on restrictions as the counts improve and capacity increases.”

“We cannot speculate on any predictions made,” said Leong by email.

She added that on Oahu, gathering restrictions are already set to expire in about 2-1/2 weeks if numbers continue to decline.

Hawaii’s soaring case counts and record number of hospitalizations and deaths from the highly contagious delta variant this summer caused the state to quickly impose new COVID-19-related restrictions and scrap plans for a full reopening. But virus indicators have fallen steadily over the past four weeks.

The seven-day average case count stood at nearly 900 at the start of September and has since fallen to 259. On Monday the state reported 195 new infections and three COVID-19-related deaths. Hospitalizations also have declined about 60% over the past month, as have the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units and on ventilators.

Most of the 650 federally funded nurses and other medical staff brought in from the mainland to assist hospitals with the surge also will be leaving over the next two to four weeks, said Green.

The state’s vaccination rate also has climbed upward. About 90% of Hawaii residents eligible to receive the vaccine, which includes anyone 12 and older, have received at least one shot, and kids ages 5 to 11 are expected to be approved for the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

“When you add these keiki, there’s just not a lot of places for this virus to go,” said Green.

Green said that there should be a gradual dropping of restrictions.

“It’s a little bit frustrating, I think, for many because, keep in mind, over 90% of all of our adults have gotten vaccinated. They are not vulnerable now,” said Green. “They want to do their jobs, they want to get back to their lives, not just the sporting events, but they want to be able to make a living for their families.”

Green said that a “very small minority of the population is leaving Gov. Ige in limbo on his decision making,” referring to the approximately 125,000 eligible residents who have not gotten vaccinated out of a population of about 1.4 million.

“It’s challenging for the governor because he’s very risk-adverse. However, we’re in a safe spot now,” said Green.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente who are represented by Unite Here Local 5 are threatening to strike since their contract expired Thursday. Union members say they are burned out from the pandemic and frustrated by the small wage increases that their employer is proposing.

The union represents a wide range of health care workers such as licensed practical nurses, medical assistants, pharmacy technicians, hospital and housekeeping aids, and clerks.

Kaiser has proposed annual wage increases of 1% over the next three years, according to the union, while offering lower pay to new hires. The union is pushing for annual increases of 4% over the next three years and opposes the two-tier wage system, which it says will exacerbate an existing crisis in staffing and worker shortages.

Lorilynn Pua, a licensed practical nurse at Kaiser Permanente Hilo Clinic and also a shop steward, said the pandemic has been emotionally draining for staff and that the modest wage increases proposed by Kaiser are a blow to morale.

“We weren’t asking for anything extravagant,” said Pua. She said that the proposed two-tier wage system also isn’t fair.

”If you do equal work, you should get equal pay,” she said.

The union plans to vote on the strike from Oct. 13 to 20, said Bryant de Venecia, a communications organizer for Local 5.

Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, said the company and the Alliance of Health Care Unions, of which Local 5 is a member, began bargaining in April. She said that Kaiser is committed to resolving the contract negotiations quickly but is prepared in the event of a strike.

“We ask that our employees reject a call to walk away from the patients who need them,” Peasnall said in a statement. “Our priority is to continue to provide our members with high quality, safe care. In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff.

“We are extremely grateful for our front-line health care employees, whose commitment to providing care and service throughout the pandemic has been nothing short of inspiring.”

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