With COVID-19 cases surging to an all-time high in Hawaii, Gov. David Ige on Thursday announced the state and counties will require tens of thousands of public workers to be vaccinated by mid-August, or submit to weekly testing.

The new mandate was included in Ige’s latest pandemic emergency proclamation, and covers all public employees including teachers, corrections officers and first responders such as police and emergency medical technicians.

Public workers who refuse to comply with the new mandate could face termination, Ige told reporters.

“Today the number of cases and hospitalizations are trending up — dramatically,” Ige said. “The highly contagious delta variant (of COVID-19) creates a big risk of infection, especially for members of our community who are not vaccinated.

Governor David Ige holds a press conference with Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi and Department of Health Director Elizabeth Char.
Gov. David Ige is requiring all state and county workers to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination by Aug. 16 or be subject to weekly testing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“Based on the current conditions, I must take action to protect public health, and avert unmanageable strains on our health care (system) all across the state,” he said.

The new proclamation requires all state and county workers to report whether they have been vaccinated to the agencies that employ them, and provide proof of vaccination. If they cannot provide that proof by Aug. 16, “they will be subject to regular COVID-19 testing,” he said.

The Ige administration notified each of the public worker unions of the planned vaccination mandate earlier this week, but the unions may push back against the new requirement.

The heads of public sector unions told reporters at a join press conference Thursday that they do not oppose the idea of getting a vaccine per se, and from the start have encouraged members to get vaccinated. They also have supported social distancing and masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

However, they do object to the governor and mayors unilaterally imposing the new requirements without first negotiating issues such as how to handle individual’s religious, medical or personal reasons for forgoing the vaccine.

“The manner in which it’s being carried out is pretty insulting,” Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said of the mandate rollout.

He added: “The way the government is imposing it, forcing employees — ‘If you want to keep your job, you have to get tested at your own expense’ — it’s problematic, the way employees’ rights are being trampled.”

Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents about 13,500 members, said he fears the mandate may cause more teachers to leave the profession in a state that already suffers from a qualified teacher shortage.

Ige said Thursday that public workers who are required to test and don’t use free testing sites will have to cover the cost themselves, but union leaders said that would impose a financial burden for those whose insurance plans won’t cover it.

Tui also expressed concern about mandatory testing for unvaccinated teachers who live in rural areas and may not have ready access to testing.

Liz Ho, administrator of the United Public Workers union, said approximately 13,000 state and county workers who are part of that union would be “significantly impacted” by the new mandate.

“There needs to be consistency and there’s just a lot of confusion right now as to what’s going to be going on, what the rules will be,” she said.

Tui said he does not know yet whether legal action may be taken, and said that HSTA still needs to consult with attorneys.

The state has more than 50,000 full-time employees, while the city has about 10,000.

When asked to describe the mechanics of the new vaccination or testing requirements, Ige said the counties will have some flexibility to decide how to manage the mandates.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said that given the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, “some level of government intervention at this time is necessary.”

The new state mandate “gives our workers choices to either opt into vaccination — which I strongly suggest — or opt into the testing,” Kawakami said. “We intend to make this as easy and convenient as possible.”

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi added a “caveat” for city employees, explaining that his administration intends to require vaccinations for all employees except for those with medical conditions or religious beliefs that prevent vaccination. Blangiardi said the city will require affidavits to document those issues.

“Our end game is to have all of our city and county employees vaccinated, with those exceptions being made,” he said.

Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said “it was our sincere hope that we wouldn’t have to come down to this to get people to do the right thing for the community.”

Roth said he understands some people “flat out don’t trust the science,” or are afraid to be vaccinated or have moral qualms. “Unfortunately, our hospitals are filling up, our ICU beds are at capacity,” he said.

“Enough is enough already. Let’s get back to the things we love most by taking the vaccine, limiting gatherings and wearing our masks. The time is now.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki on Thursday announced the House will also impose a vaccine requirement for members and staff effective Sept. 30. Those who decline to be vaccinated will need to be tested weekly, according to Saiki.

State House Republican Minority Leader Val Okimoto, meanwhile, wrote a letter to Ige urging that he not mandate the vaccine.

“One of the most common reasons for people not getting the vaccine is institutional distrust and government hesitancy,” she wrote in her letter to Ige. “You fix this problem by continuing to encourage people to protect themselves and their loved ones and helping them through their hesitancy.”

Okimoto said she is fully vaccinated herself, and encourages others to be vaccinated.

Ige said the new emergency proclamation he signed Thursday leaves in place the indoor mask mandate for public settings as well as the state’s testing, quarantine and Safe Travels programs for visitors and residents who arrive in Hawaii.

The state eviction moratorium for renters will expire as scheduled on Friday, and Ige said he does not know what effect the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have in Hawaii.

The federal moratorium requires that each county meet certain testing and other criteria, and “we continue to work with federal agencies and here in the state to determine what the impact of that federal CDC eviction moratorium will be,” he said.

Hawaii reported 655 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, the highest daily count since the pandemic began more than a year ago. Slightly more than 60% of Hawaii’s population has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and more than 67% of eligible residents have received at least one injection.

Ige has set a goal of a 70% vaccination rate before he will lift statewide restrictions and testing requirements imposed to combat the pandemic, but noted Thursday that goal may change because the delta variant is much more contagious than the previous strains of the virus.

State Health Director Libby Char said about 95% of the people being hospitalized with COVID-19 in Hawaii are not vaccinated.

The latest Hawaii data shows that about 300 out of every 10,000 unvaccinated people are being infected, while only six out of every 10,000 people who have been vaccinated get COVID-19, ” so we know it works,” she said.

Health Officials Weighing Options

Hawaii’s travel testing exemption for vaccinated visitors could be suspended if cases continue rising, according to Maj. Gen Kenneth Hara, director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Hara, who is in charge of the state’s Safe Travels program, told a panel of senators Thursday that rolling back the vaccine exemption could be an option to control spread of the virus in Hawaii.

But the decision to do that hasn’t been made yet, and it’s not clear at what point the state would rescind the program that has opened the door to a greater volume of tourists.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz asked Hara at what point the state would consider requiring all travelers to get a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before traveling.

“I haven’t even thought about it yet,” Hara said. He added that the issue might be discussed at a meeting Friday between the governor and the county mayors.

The state and county executives are expected to decide at that meeting to limit social gatherings to 10 indoors and 25 outdoors, according to Hara.

Hara said that ultimately any further restrictions would be at the discretion of the mayors.

Meanwhile, Hawaii hospitals are also gearing up to deal with a potential surge in cases.

Hilton Raethel, CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said the association is planning to contract with 500 additional medical personnel from the mainland after getting requests from local hospitals. He noted that many hospital workers are feeling burned out after more than a year of fighting the pandemic.

Raethel said hospitals still have bed space in intensive care units across the state and enough ventilators.

“What we don’t have is staff,” Raethel said.

Civil Beat reporters Blaze Lovell and Suevon Lee contributed to this report.

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