A little more than a month ago, the Covid-19 pandemic was heading in an alarming direction. Case counts and hospitalizations rose so steeply that Gov. David Ige on Aug. 23 sent a surprising message to potential visitors: “Now is not the time” to visit Hawaii.
Today, new case counts are on a steady downward path, and while there’s no indication Ige will roll out the aloha mat for visitors before October, there is a growing consensus that the pandemic has turned a corner.
The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization said as much on Friday in an economic forecast for the third quarter of 2021.
“THE DELTA TIDE MAY BE TURNING,” the report said over a graph indicating case counts had peaked in early September and had declined steadily since then.
“Happily, there are indications that the Delta wave may now have peaked,” UHERO said. “Both new infections and new hospitalizations have declined from their levels in late August. Higher vaccination rates, along with renewed social distancing measures, seem to have helped keep the Delta wave from becoming a tsunami. Further suppression of the virus will require cautious individual behavior for some time to come.”
Ray Vara, chief executive of Hawaii’s largest hospital company, Hawaii Pacific Health, agrees. While hospitals remain fairly full, Vara said it’s not so much because of Covid-19 patients, as it was a few weeks ago, but because of people needing other types of medical care.
The rise and fall of the highly contagious delta variant appears to have tracked that of the variant in other places, Vara said.
“Almost like clockwork, it plateaued consistent with other models,” Vara said.
More than 67% of Hawaii’s population has been vaccinated, according to the Hawaii Department of Health, and more people have built at least some natural immunity from being exposed to the virus, Vara noted. In addition, rules limiting social gatherings have further helped rein in cases, he said.
“Eventually, it just runs out of steam,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green was more circumspect when asked about the implications, but he agreed there is a trend: “Numbers are declining now,” he said.
Precisely what this means for Hawaii’s economic recovery is not clear.
Since the early days of the pandemic it’s been axiomatic that the economy and Covid-19 were bound together. The delta surge underscored that, especially after Ige stepped in to tell tourists they were no longer welcome until at least October.
“The number of deplaning visitors has now dropped by almost 45%, and airline capacity utilization has dropped sharply, despite a 22% reduction in seat capacity in August,” UHERO reported. “Hoteliers report sharp increases in canceled bookings through October, with the rate remaining somewhat higher than normal through the winter travel season.”
The big question is when will the economy turn around? UHERO generally doesn’t make predictions but instead draws scenarios viewed through the lens of various factors.
Under an optimistic scenario, tourism starts bouncing back during this year’s holiday season, and the overall economy, as measured by GDP, regains its footing in 2022. Under the pessimistic scenario, tourism takes longer to bounce back, and GDP doesn’t get back to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.
One of the big challenges for business executives is spreading the word that Hawaii is getting safer, said Carl Bonham, UHERO’s executive director. Ige’s announcement that visitors should stay away made national headlines.
“It’s harder to get the opposite message out,” Bonham said, “which is that it’s under control and safer.”
The same goes for spreading that message locally.
“Visitors were never the main driver of Covid cases, that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the pandemic,” Green said. “It has consistently been community spread amongst those who are not vaccinated.”
“Cases are dropping now because more than 75% of the population has at least initiated vaccination and another 5.4% have had confirmed cases,” he added. “This means we have about 80% of our society with growing immunity.”
Hawaii reported 408 new cases on Saturday, a drop from case counts that rose above 1,000 earlier this month. The average daily cases for the last seven days was 378. No new deaths were reported, leaving the total at 747.
All this suggests Hawaii is in good shape to move forward without needing massive economic shutdowns, as long as people act with reasonable care to protect themselves and each other.
“Covid’s not going anywhere,” Vara said. “The question is, how good are we at living with it in the future?”
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