Gov. David Ige says he is considering requiring state workers and government employees to get vaccinated as Hawaii enters its second week of daily, triple-digit COVID-19 cases.

Ige’s statement on Monday during the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” program comes on the heels of a similar announcement from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is mandating government workers in the Golden State get vaccinated or be subject to regular COVID-19 testing.

Whether government institutions and private companies can require workers to get vaccinated is still being debated.

Pfizer COVID-19 vacciine in syringes at Blaisdell Concert Hall.
Gov. David Ige is considering requiring state workers to get vaccinated. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Ige said the state would prefer full authorization from the Food and Drug Administration before mandating the vaccine. The vaccines were approved under emergency use authorization to speed distribution.

However, the governor said he is not confident the feds have a timeline for when full authorization might come.

“We’ve been asking about what that timeline looks like and we really haven’t gotten a response that makes us feel comfortable,” Ige said. “So we are looking at what steps would be necessary to mandate that from employees ahead of FDA approval.”

In December, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that employers could require coronavirus vaccinations for workers but also provided for exemptions for people claiming medical or religious reasons for not getting a shot.

In addition to mandating vaccines, California is giving workers the option of getting weekly COVID-19 tests if they want to go to work.

Ige noted that the cost of testing in Hawaii has dropped and there are more rapid testing options than there were at the outset of the pandemic.

Ige also said he is also considering mandating workers at state jails and prisons to get vaccinated. Hawaii’s correctional facilities have been the site of severe outbreaks in the last year. 

Conditions have gotten so bad that a federal judge on July 13 ordered the state Department of Public Safety to begin following its plan for coping with the pandemic.

The University of Hawaii plans to lift a requirement for all students to get vaccinated after finding that 92% of students and 95% of faculty already got a COVID-19 vaccine. Instead, unvaccinated students will need to get COVID-19 tests weekly, UH President David Lassner announced Friday.

“Unvaccinated students should be aware that they may be ineligible for some employment opportunities and may be prohibited from participation in certain face-to-face educational activities (e.g. clinical and field work), and may therefore be prevented from completing educational requirements,” Lassner wrote. “Students who desire a full campus experience should be vaccinated.”

UH also rescinded a return-to-work policy and will keep in place telework options.

Ige also said state health officials plan to use the availability of intensive care beds and ventilators to determine whether or not the state will reimplement any of the pandemic restrictions that went into effect last year.

However, the governor declined to give a specific benchmark for when any restrictions might be reinstated.

“There’s really no bright line,” Ige said. “I know I get asked that a lot.”

Ige said that elective surgeries may be suspended to free up bed space if hospitals fill up again.

Currently, 17 ICU beds in the state are occupied by COVID-19 patients while 11 ventilators are also being used by COVID-19 patients, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi has already said that Oahu will not impose new restrictions since close to 70% of the island’s residents are vaccinated.

Ige is also confident that schools can safely reopen to in-person classes, saying that schools have mitigation plans in place and can summon contracted cleaning crews in the event a case is detected in schools.

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