Chad Blair: 'A Pandemic For The Unvaccinated' - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


The number of confirmed coronavirus cases shifted sharply following the long July 4 weekend and increased dramatically throughout the month. Government officials weighed implementing new restrictions to control the spread of the virus. Businesses struggled to stay open while families struggled to pay bills.

COVID-19 clusters broke out in large institutions. Health disparities worsened for Pacific Islanders and other communities of color. School officials prepared as best they could for the upcoming school year.

And throughout it all advocates for personal freedoms protested what they said was a suppression of their fundamental rights.

After reading the previous paragraphs you’re probably thinking, “Man, it’s been a pretty rough month.” In fact, the headlines are drawn from July 2020, not July 2021.

Hawaii — and the rest of the nation — had begun to exhale as the caseload flattened earlier this year with a robust vaccination campaign that allowed cautious moves toward reopening.

But a rash of triple-digit infections driven by an aggressive new variant and decreased demand for vaccines has renewed concerns about a return to lockdowns and other restrictions as the state enters its 17th month of living through a pandemic.

To be sure, many things are very, very different — and much, much better — about Hawaii and COVID-19 today as compared to 12 months ago. Vaccines did not exist then, tourism was in the toilet, unemployment was skyrocketing, and hope and optimism were in short supply.

The nation was also led by an administration whose response to the twin health and economic crises was often marked by indifference, delay, skepticism and disinformation.

Donald Trump is now gone (sorta). So are the directors of health, epidemiology, public safety, labor and (on Friday) schools who led the front-line government agencies through the early stages of the battle against COVID-19. They were all effectively driven from their jobs by their responses to the pandemic.

But this past Sunday, Hawaii recorded 276 confirmed and probable COVID-19 infections, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 40,659, with 529 deaths. It was the highest spike in cases since January and the 11th straight day of triple-digit infections, a trend that continued through Tuesday and shows no end in sight.

Compare that to the same day a year ago when Hawaii set a then-record of 73 new cases, raising the total to 1,620 cases and 26 deaths.

Wednesday’s count of 85 new cases and three deaths was incomplete due to an electronic laboratory reporting system interruption, the health department said.

What the heck is happening, and where the heck are we going?

‘Pandemic For The Unvaccinated’

The latest surge in cases is attributed to the highly contagious delta variant, a large segment of the population that is unvaccinated and — to a lesser but still worrisome extent — locals returning from mainland travel.

“There is a certain amount of deja vu, but it’s for one-third of the state,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor who is the state’s COVID-19 liaison. “It’s a pandemic for the unvaccinated.”

Nationwide, developments are evolving rapidly, sometimes by the hour. The Biden administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, big city mayors and governors — including some in the GOP — are already responding with plans for new guidelines, restrictions and mandates. So are more and more businesses.

Gov. David Ige says vaccination mandates or coronavirus testing may be necessary for some state workers in Hawaii, although he wants to wait until the Food and Drug Administration gives its full approval to the vaccines currently on the market. And hos­pital capacity is a big factor in that calculation.

Hawai‘i Pacific Health’s Vax Squad bus team member, Kayla Guillarmo administers a COVID-19 vaccine at the Honolulu Zoo on Friday, July 16, 2021. The Honolulu Zoo hosted the event in partnership with the City and County of Honolulu, Hawai‘i State Department of Health, and Hawai‘i Pacific Health. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Hawaii Pacific Health’s Vax Squad bus team member Kayla Guillarmo administers a COVID-19 vaccine at the Honolulu Zoo. In spite of concerted efforts to inoculate the state’s population, Hawaii is well short of its 70% vaccination goal. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

Officially, the number of fully vaccinated residents in the islands was 59.8% as of Wednesday, still short of Ige’s goal of 70%.

But Green said that two-thirds of the population — over 944,000 — are now either vaccinated or immune to the virus, including first responders who worked last year under the risk of getting sick themselves because vaccines had yet to be made available.

Green agreed that the period following July 4 is similar to what happened last summer, but he says Hawaii is in “a much better space” now. He expects the triple-digit cases to come down by next month.

“It’s still heartbreaking to see someone die or have to be in the hospital, but 2020 was the worst year for the pandemic,” he said. “It will be impactful and scary for us this year, but less so, and next year it will be much more in the background for America and Hawaii.”

Still, Green and others directly involved in the fight against the virus are worried about the latest infections.

Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, notes that about 50% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations are people under the age of 50.

“That is real scary,” he said. “These are not the elderly or people with underlying conditions. Many of these people believe that they are immune and won’t get the virus. They are playing the odds, but every single day they are losing that game.”

Raethel also expressed concern over health care workers who have been dealing with the pandemic for a year and a half now and are burning out. He is frustrated that so many people have yet to take the simple step to get the shots. “This is starting to take a toll — it really is,” he said.

For now, hospitals are not jammed with COVID-19 patients. As of Wednesday, just over 100 were hospitalized, 20 in intensive care units, and plenty of ventilators are available. Last year at this time, 54 COVID patients were in hospital beds.

The key to keeping Hawaii healthy is much the same as it was a year ago, said Ray Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health, which runs four hospitals statewide.

Wear masks when around others and practice social distancing when not wearing a mask, or when around people whose vaccination status is unclear.

Also, get vaccinated if you have not already done so. With FDA approval expected this fall, the population aged 12 and under should soon qualify for the jabs, he said.

“If we do these things, I think we will find our way through this,” said Vara. “We have a lot to be proud of.”

‘More Normal Level Of Activity’

Hawaii’s economic health also is much better than last year, and the latest COVID-19 numbers have not put a dent in indicators like visiting restaurants.

“There is a world of difference today,” said Carl Bonham executive director of the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii. “The fear level was really high in the early days and we had no idea what we were dealing with. Now, people know to wear a mask, not go into big crowds. We know that we can deal with this.”

Bonham said he could understand if some residents are feeling disappointed and “mildly depressed” at the latest case numbers, because “in a sense things seemed to be in the rearview mirror. We were starting to enjoy a more normal level of activity.”

And while tourism has not fully returned to pre-pandemic levels, Hawaii is still seen as a safe travel destination.

Most recent cases have been blamed on local transmission, not tourists. According to state travel data, of the 33,378 arrivals on Tuesday, 30,303 had either been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19.

On the same Saturday that First Lady Jill Biden visited Oahu to advocate for vaccines, anti-COVID restriction rallies were held on the Big Island (above), Maui and Oahu. Courtesy: Michelle Melendez

What remains unknown is when international travel — especially from Canada and Japan — will resume.

Other hurdles include the need to get more hotel workers vaccinated and to find enough people to staff the hotels and restaurants, said Keith Vieira, a former hotel executive who now runs KV and Associates, Hospitality Consulting.

“That is probably our biggest challenge going forward,” he said about the staffing shortage.

There is much that could still go wrong, of course. For example, other variants of the virus loom. Some studies raise concerns that variants may make the vaccines less effective or require booster shots.

There is also the possibility that inoculation levels won’t budge and more people will end up in the hospital. If that is the case, Raethel says hospitals do have a “pressure valve” that they can activate — namely, postponing non-urgent surgery.

“But that is disruptive to those individuals who take time off from work, get help from family and friends, and prepare mentally,” he said. “We will do that if we have to, but we prefer not to.”

Raethel said Hawaii has three options — let the disease continue to kill people, lock down the economy again or get more shots in arms.

The possibility of requiring proof of vaccination to enter buildings, unless visitors can produce a doctor’s certification or a religious exemption, also is being considered in some quarters.

“We need to get 100,000 to 150,000 more people vaccinated, and we could do that in two weeks quite easily,” he said. “We have the capacity, we have the vaccine, we have the desire. We just need the will on the part of the unvaccinated.”


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

In reading all the comments, I fail to understand why people should be condemned for choosing to not get vaccinated.  It is their body and their choice.  After speaking with an APRN who handles Covid testing at one of our hospitals on Oahu, people who are vaccinated and/or people whom already had Covid are getting Covid now.  vaccinations do NOT keep you from getting Covid or spreading it.  Of course the news doesn’t say everything about the outcome of vaccinations, that would be silly.  However, if people choose to get it or not to get it, let it go and let it be.  The best thing we can ALL do is be careful, mask up, use proper hygiene, keep our distance and be safe when having to be out and about.  If you’re not being cautious as you would have pre-vaccination, then things may happen.  Just as any cold or flu or mrsa.  Somethings sometimes our out of our control.  This world needs more love and a lot less pointing fingers and discrimination.  I am not pro or against vaccinations, however, let’s all stop being so judgmental to situations where we don’t have the full spectrum of.  

Just.a.thought... · 1 month ago

Why do we only hear about vaccines?Surely in the 21st century people are working on therapeutics to treat this bug, but vaccination is being sold as the fix.A story on the progress of effective treatments for those who do get sick would be nice. A vaccine never cured a disease. Anti viral science has come a long way.

Gordyf · 1 month ago

It is probably too late to get a vaccine to beat the Delta variant wave. Two doses of vaccine plus 2-3 weeks after the second dose are needed to acquire protection. The minimum interval between the two dozes are 3 weeks for Pfizer and 4 weeks for Moderna; multiple peer-reviewed and recently published studies indicate that a longer interval (6 to 12 weeks) significantly increases both the antibody and T-cell response, particularly in older people. On the other hand, the Delta variant is so infectious (R0 estimated to be between 6 and 8) that its case rates even in highly immunized populations typically rocket up, peak, and then rocket down within just a few weeks - see the data for India, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Malta, Cyprus, Portugal. The Delta wave is already in motion in Hawaii; the best we can realistically do (through another shutdown) is to flatten its curve a little. What truly matters is what comes after Delta.

Chiquita · 1 month ago

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