In a move that had been gaining momentum within the administration for at least the last week, Gov. David Ige on Thursday used the emergency powers of his office to institute a vaccination mandate for all state and county employees.
All those working in such a capacity will be required to provide their vaccination status to their department or agency. Those who can not provide proof of vaccination by Aug. 16, 2021, will be subject to once weekly coronavirus testing until their vaccination status is verified. If employees do not use a free state- or county-sponsored testing facility to provide their once weekly results, they will be responsible for payment, either out-of-pocket or via a health insurance plan. They may also be subject to work-related travel restrictions moving forward if they choose to remain unvaccinated.
The governor confirmed that state and county employees who choose not to get themselves inoculated, and who also fail to comply with the resulting testing requirements of that decision, could be subject to termination. There will be limited exceptions to the mandate.
Hawai´i’s model follows closely a federal vaccination mandate issued by President of the United States Joe Biden on July 29, 2021.
County mayors were present at a press conference Thursday, during which Ige made the announcement. All stated they were on board with the vaccination mandate, save for Maui Mayor Michael Victorino, who was unable to attend the meeting virtually due to technical difficulties.
The governor and the mayors justified their decision to the public by leaning against the ongoing surge of cases throughout the state, aided by the backdrop Hawai´i’s worst statistical day since the pandemic began.
“(Cases) dramatically increased in the past few weeks,” said Dr. Elizabeth Char, director of the State Department of Health (DOH). “There is widespread community transmission, along with clusters in groups of people who are unvaccinated.”
“Hospitals are concerned about their capacity and, especially, their staffing,” Char continued. “The return to normalcy we were all fighting so hard to attain is now in jeopardy.”
Just an hour before the press conference, the DOH reported 655 new cases of COVID-19 across all islands, as well as unprecedented test positivity rates.
Aside from instituting the vaccination requirement for state and county employees, the governor’s newest emergency proclamation also extends the mandatory mask mandate for indoor public settings. It maintains the conditions of travel quarantine and the broader framework of Hawai´i’s Safe Travels Program, complete with pre-travel testing requirements and current vaccine exemptions.
The proclamation further extends the suspension of licensing requirements for certain medical and healthcare professionals to help stem what is already being reported as a critical staff shortage amid the surging pandemic, and allows for boards and commissions to continue meeting virtually. Expiration dates on driver’s licenses and state IDs that expired during the emergency period were also extended.
The state’s eviction moratorium, however, will still end on Friday, Aug. 6, as declared three weeks ago.
Backlash, Challenges Expected From Employee Unions
State and county employees cover a large number of people and professions in Hawai´i.
The Hawai´i Fire Fighters Association, Hawai´i Government Employees Association, the Hawai´i State Teachers Association, the State of Hawai´i Organization of Police Officers, the University of Hawai´i Professional Assembly, and the United Public Workers released the following joint statement in reaction to the governor’s vaccination mandate:
“We strongly encourage COVID-19 vaccinations as part of our united effort to beat the pandemic and protect our community’s health. The health and well-being of our public employees, who have been essential during this pandemic, remain our top priority while we continue to keep vital government operations running every day.
The public-sector unions reached out to the governor’s office earlier this week to initiate discussions about the vaccine mandate, but our request was denied. We will continue to fight for open discussions about these important decisions that affect public employees, our government operations, and our community.
The emergency proclamation will impact our members’ working conditions and the employer must bargain those impacts with the appropriate collective bargaining units. Details on how tests will be administered, how results will be kept confidential, and how the state will fund this mandate will need to be negotiated with the state and we look forward to having those discussions right away.
The collective bargaining process is premised on the foundation that a harmonious and cooperative relationship between government and its employees will better protect and serve the public by assuring the effective and orderly operations of government. There is no greater time in our history and existence that this process be recognized and honored.”
As to the details laid out in the joint union statement as points of contention, the governor said some have yet to be hashed out but that individual departments and agencies would develop protocol to oversee and enforce his vaccination mandate. He added that the state and counties are prepared for a challenge from the unions and ready to hash out legal arguments.
“We are committed and prepared to proceed,” Ige said. “We do understand that the unions will exercise their rights to challenge the decisions made, and we are prepared to defend the state’s and counties’ actions as part of our response to this emergency pandemic.”
Union leaders, on the other hand, said they are not out of line in their thinking with the administration but feel they have not been granted a voice. They said further via a joint press conference that the Office of the Governor is grandstanding and that “these employers don’t care about their employees.”
Schools at Center of Surge, Vaccination Mandate Discussion
Internal contradictions are ripe around state policies and HSTA’s attitude toward the return to full in-person learning. The state’s message is that children benefit from face-to-face learning, that it is crucial for their development and success, and that the benefits of sending them back outweigh the risks.
That message has been pushed as recently as Monday, Aug. 2, by Dr. Char who was quoted Thursday as stressing that COVID cases in Hawai´i have “dramatically increased” in recent days and that there is already “widespread community transmission” present across all islands.
The message from the teacher’s union is that the virus is surging like never before, safety protocols have lessened in school settings, and transmission is likely to be rampant no matter what the on-campus circumstances, meaning a return to the classroom setting should likely be delayed.
However, HSTA also refuses to openly support, absent collective bargaining caveats, a vaccine mandate that would require all teachers be inoculated (about 80% already are), and which would make on-campus environments unquestionably safer even if students and unaffiliated employees are not required to get the shots.
Ige said his administration continues internal discussions about a possible vaccination requirement for the student body. Those who wish to participate in sports, as well as the adults in the community who wish to coach or serve as athletic trainers, etc., are already required to be vaccinated in order to maintain eligibility. That decision was announced Wednesday by the Hawai´i Department of Education.
“We know that our schools have gotten better (with) layered mitigation actions of cohorting students, minimizing interactions between broader communities within a school campus, (and) keeping students in bubbles and clusters to limit the spread,” said Ige, asserting that the DOE’s summer program and schools on the year-round calendar carry proof that a return to the classroom can be done safely.
A total of approximately 180,000 students, teachers, and other DOE and on-campus employees have returned to public school settings since the 2021-22 year kicked off officially on Tuesday, Aug. 3. Data pertaining to campus-related infections since that time has not yet been made available by the DOE or DOH.
Return to Travel, Shelter Restrictions Unlikely Despite Surge
Despite Hawai´i’s long history of stringent pandemic protocol, the governor said the state is unlikely to revert to restrictions that kept visitors out, and residents inside and distanced.
“We are committed not to implementing across-the-board kind of restrictions because it does penalize those businesses and entities that have done a good job of implementing mitigation strategies,” Ige said. “We will announce (any new) measures as we come to a conclusion. We have been talking about it for at least two weeks, and we will be meeting on it tomorrow.”
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi made the point that the state’s previous circumstances, which demanded severe travel and quarantine restrictions along with lockdowns, were considerably different. Namely, there was not a “critical mass” of vaccinated individuals in Hawai´i as there are now.
According to DOH figures, 60.5% of the state has been fully vaccinated and 67.6% have received at least their first shots.
Char said that around 95% of patients currently hospitalized throughout the state are unvaccinated. Breakthrough cases are occurring, but only at a rate of approximately six people out of every 10,000. For those who are unvaccinated, the number jumps to 300 out of every 10,000.
Before the arrival of the now dominant and highly transmissible Delta variant, the state projected a 70% vaccination rate would allow for the removal of all COVID-related restrictions. While they would attach no specific figure to it, both Ige and Char indicated Thursday that the new percentage of vaccinated Hawai´i residents required to get rid of all regulations has undoubtedly become higher.