The rate of new COVID-19 diagnoses is falling in Hawaii, likely due to more people getting the vaccine, Hawaii’s top health official said.

As of Friday, the Aloha State recorded an average of 52 new cases per day during the past two weeks. That average case rate fell by 30% since May 20.

“We track the numbers every day and we know the number of new cases in the state on a daily average has been declining,” Dr. Elizabeth Char said Friday at a press conference. “I’d think a significant amount is due to people being vaccinated.”

The rate of people who tested positive for the coronavirus in the last week is also low, at 1.1% statewide. All counties except the Big Island have seen a downward trend in new infections reported.

East Oahu Honolulu Hawaii Kai aerial.
The COVID-19 pandemic is still ever-present, but health experts believe case rates are falling in Hawaii in part due to the vaccination campaign. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Thomas Lee, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Hawaii who co-chairs the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group, said a similar trend is playing out nationally.

“In other areas and countries around the world that have a similar vaccination rate they’re seeing a big decline in part because of the vaccine effort,” he said.

The overall picture of who is falling ill has also changed in the islands, he noted. Most of the new cases recorded weekly are among the 18-44 year old age group, according to data from DOH.

“Overall we’ve done very well with vaccine efforts, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is safe,” Lee said. “Now the virus kind of seeks out those who are unvaccinated and it’s the younger demographic. We are still seeing some fatalities and quite a bit of hospitalizations in that age demographic, even though they’re younger.”

As of Friday, 36 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 statewide, with 10 COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit and seven using ventilators.

A screenshot of a graphic from the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Group shows how the number of people with active COVID-19 infections on a weekly basis has fallen over the past month. Courtesy: Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Group

There are other factors that keep the possibility of COVID-19 clusters a persistent threat.

Just over half of the Hawaii population is fully immunized against COVID-19, which still leaves many people vulnerable to catching the virus. Children younger than 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccines currently on the market.

“We still have pockets of clusters and that’s why we need to get beyond 52% [fully vaccinated] and get into the 60 and 70%” range, Char said.

She spoke as the state unveiled an incentive program including prizes and discounts from local businesses to encourage more people to get shots.

State health department officials noted Thursday in a report that restaurants are an area of concern as they increasingly open and increase their staff numbers to serve more local customers and tourists.

Several infection clusters have been detected among restaurant co-workers, according to the report.

In one case, 38 infections were linked to an Oahu fast food restaurant, beginning with 11 unvaccinated employees and spreading to 27 of their household members — four of whom worked at three other fast food restaurants where seven more cases were confirmed. 

“Restaurant servers interact with the public and kitchen staff often work in hot spaces with poor ventilation and limited space, which makes physical distancing impractical,” officials wrote in the report.  

“Despite conducting pre-shift COVID-19 symptom checks, employees were allowed to work with symptoms. Employees who had symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and stayed home from work were allowed to return to work without testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Vaccination uptake was also low among employees,” they said.

Another Molokai restaurant dealt with a COVID-19 cluster that affected six people this month, according to the report.

“Although the restaurant required employees to wear masks in all areas, mask compliance was low among kitchen workers due to the heat,” investigators wrote. “Employees also carpooled to work; carpooling has been associated with an increased risk of transmission across workplace settings.”

Certain metrics may become less reliable as a measure of the pandemic, such as the testing positivity rate, if testing rates fall as requirements are lifted for travelers who are vaccinated, Lee said. 

State officials said Friday they were lifting travel restrictions for interisland travel, and travelers from the mainland who got at least one shot in Hawaii will be exempt from COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements starting June 15. 

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