Whatever chances Hawai´i had at leaving COVID restrictions behind come the start of October were obliterated with the arrival of the Delta variant to island shores.
Governor David Ige on Friday, Oct. 1, held a press conference to announce his intent to extend the statewide emergency proclamation for two more months, which will hold in place vaccination mandates for state and federal employees, mask mandates for everyone in indoor settings and extensions for those who need to renew their driver’s licenses. No changes will be made to the state’s Safe Travels Program.
The newest version of the proclamation also clarifies that employers are not financially responsible for the cost of regular coronavirus testing for employees who choose the testing route over free, one-time inoculations.
“COVID continues to cause high rates of infection throughout our state,” Ige said. “In Hawai´i, we can not expand our hospital capacity by simply driving a few miles or by airlifting people. We are isolated and have to be self reliant.”
The Delta variant, which peaked in late August through early September, brought with it to the Hawaiian Islands a spike in cases that saw the state’s 7-day average exceed 900 new infections daily for a time. The fallout was 193 COVID-related fatalities in September, making it the deadliest month of the pandemic by far.
Hospitalizations also skyrocketed, pushing healthcare facilities and their intensive care units to operate well above capacity for several weeks. More than 650 outside healthcare personnel were brought in to manage the situation, many of whom remained in Hawai´i as of Oct. 1.
The Director of the Hawai´i Department of Health (DOH), Dr. Elizabeth Char, said Friday that cases have been trending downward for the previous four weeks. However, the 7-day average for new infections remained above 300 as of Friday (301, to be precise). That tally is still higher than the peak of any previous COVID-19 surge in Hawai´i documented over the previous year and a half of the pandemic.
While more than 2 million doses of vaccination have been administered statewide, 32% of the population remains unvaccinated. That translates into nearly 250,000 Hawai´i residents eligible for the vaccine (those aged 12 years or older), who are not yet fully vaccinated.
“We have a few weeks to go before we expect to be back at a level we can manage ourselves with our current resources and people,” Char said.
Timeline for Rollback of COVID Restrictions Intentionally Unclear
The health director’s mention of “a few weeks” before Hawai´i’s healthcare crisis is reined in was the closest she or the governor came to naming a timeline for anything resembling a rollback of COVID-related restrictions.
Ige said there exists no single health metric upon which his administration can draw to make appropriate decisions about expanding, decreasing or eliminating restrictions.
“We don’t have a specific metric or a number at this point in time,” he said.
The non-committal nature of the answer remains in-step with the public approach assumed by the governor’s office to restrictions of all types since the pandemic began in March 2020.
There were minor deviations throughout the course of the pandemic, however. At one point, the administration noted a 70% statewide vaccination rate for the elimination of all restrictions. The governor blamed the Delta variant for that benchmark being tossed out the window, as Hawai´i hit 68% of its population fully vaccinated on Friday but has introduced no immediate plans to alter restrictions.
Non-committal language allows for flexibility in the face of other restrictions that state residents are anxious to see removed, such as a ban on spectators at high school and collegiate sporting events.
“It certainly is different in the sense that any gathering where you have large numbers, and when we are talking about sporting events that may attract 1,000 people or more, it does become an opportunity to spread the virus,” the governor said. “As we see the case counts drop and the conditions for healthcare improve, we’ll be working with the (University of Hawai´i) to be able to bring spectators back to football games.”
When pressed, Ige continued to avoid clarifying precisely what case counts and hospital conditions would allow stadiums to again fill with spectators.
One thing he was definitive about, however, was that no vaccination mandate would be issued for students attending public schools, like the one California recently issued for its school-aged population.
“We are not considering a mandatory vaccination for COVID-19 at this point in time,” Ige said. “We don’t have any vaccine that has been approved for children (ages) 5-11. … All vaccinations we mandate are fully approved vaccinations that have gone through the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) processes.”
The governor clarified that the state’s stance on mandatory vaccinations for anyone who is not a public worker would remain as he described in the quote above, at least until the FDA and CDC issued full approval for COVID-19 vaccines.
However, Ige added that his administration is hopeful the federal government will allow for an emergency use authorization to vaccinate children between the ages of 5-11 against COVID-19 in the near future.