Hawaii Coronavirus Update

Nurse in mask

By: Jeff Tadashi

Hawaii leads the United States in Coronavirus vaccinations. 40 percent of the state population is fully vaccinated thus far.

On April 12, 2021 Hawaii began administering shots to children age 12 and up. As of right now, the only shot children age 12 and up can receive is the Pfizer vaccine. The shots given to children will be the same dose as what adults receive, which is two shots given three weeks apart. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that the Pfizer vaccine is safe and said the vaccine offers strong protection for younger teens based on testing of more than 2,000 US volunteers ages 12 to 15. The FDA noted there were no cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated adolescents compared with 16 who got the dummy shots. Researchers also found that children in this age group developed higher levels of virus-fighting antibodies than earlier studies measured in young adults. Parental or guardian consent is needed in order for children between the ages of 12 and 17 to get a Pfizer shot.

On April 13, 2021, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks outdoors and in most indoor settings. Exceptions include crowded indoor settings like planes, buses, and homeless shelters. The new CDC guidance was celebrated by many including President Joe Biden who exclaimed that it was a great day for America.

Governor David Ige, for now, is electing to keep Hawaii’s mask mandate in place. The Governor reported that the state is in the process of reviewing CDC’s changes in the guidelines and will be announcing appropriate adjustments. Until the announcement, Hawaii’s state mask mandate continues to be in force. The Governor said that keeping the mandate in place benefits the broader community, including our children who have not been vaccinated. At one point, the Governor indicated he would support requiring masks until up to 70 to 80 percent of Hawaii is vaccinated, but walked that back those comments saying the state doesn’t have a hard and fast cutoff for masks. The Governor did describe the difficulties associated with identifying who is and isn’t vaccinated.

The Governor’s position starkly contrasts with emerging national trends ― and stands in opposition to Lieutenant Governor Josh Green’s own opinion on the issue. Green believes the state’s mask mandate should be lifted for fully vaccinated residents. The Lieutenant Governor explained that lifting the mandate is part of the process to return to normalcy and to trust the vaccines. To Green, lifting the mandate serves as an incentive for residents to do the right thing – get vaccinated.

On Oahu, reactions to the mask announcements were mixed. Some vaccinated residents expressed happiness with the freedom to unmask again. Other vaccinated residents,

think mask wearing should continue because some of our residents have not had the opportunity yet.

Josh Green said that residents and leaders have to follow the science and lift the mask mandate. Following the science is a much-used justification since the pandemic began. On one side, following the science is an affirmation and call to arms to vaccinate, mask, and social distance. On the other side, following the science is a form of cancel culture and taking away individual freedom. A reminder that scientists also once professed the world to be flat and that the Earth itself was the center of the universe. Science changes and it has certainly changed with great fluidity during this pandemic. It will continue to change as we learn more about this virus in the years to come.

What has not changed is the law. According to the law – the Constitution – Governor Ige is responsible for the broad policing of the state. This state is quite usual in several regards which makes it more difficult to police and safeguard. It is the most isolated population center on Earth. It is the widest east to west state in the Union. Getting aid to every corner of the state takes time and is a very complex and often cumbersome undertaking. Despite our isolation and width, Lieutenant Governor Green himself described Hawaii having more than adequate physical space and tech capacity. Hawaii never ran out of ventilators, though we did come close in August 2020 during the initial surge. At most only 2,000 out of 3,000 available hospital beds in the state were ever occupied. Because we are isolated, it did take five months for the first delivery of 23 additional ventilators to arrive. The last of the order arrived in February 2021, 10 months after the order was placed.

Hawaii health officials describe Hawaii’s real pandemic problem being one that Hawaii hospitals faced well before Coronavirus — a staffing shortage. When the medical need swells, such as during flu and cold seasons, Hawaii has had to rely on expensive outside help from traveling nurses and respiratory therapists. During Coronavirus, this reliance was magnified. Health officials found that nurses who would traditionally be able to care for five patients at a time needed to focus on fewer Coronavirus patients who needed much more attention. Our reservoir of qualified nurses was severely strained. At its peak, Queen’s alone had as many as 130 traveling nurses and clinical staff on site.

The state has to spend millions to bolster its specialized medical staff. A total of $16 million in federal CARES Act relief funding was spent on travel nurses last year. Those dollars covered the cost of the nurses’ pay, airfare, hotels, food allowances and car rentals, adding up to an average of $49,000 for each of the 326 contracted staff members between September and December 2020. The traveling staff included nurses specializing in critical care, telemetry, surgery, dialysis and emergencies, as well as respiratory therapists. Though it was expensive, Hawaii hospitals had already exhausted local nursing resources, including paying overtime. There isn’t a cheaper alternative at the moment.

In addition to state security, Governor Ige also has the manage Hawaii from a financial security standpoint. He inherited a budget $660 million short in revenue. That deficit ballooned to $2.4 billion before the application of the America Rescue Plan Act and the CARES Act. Now it projects to stand at $880 million without throwing the $3.5 billion HART shortage into the calculations. Yet from a financial perspective, Ige knows that Hawaii hospitals cannot afford to build specialty clinical staffs to be ready for every possible emergency. It is not economically feasible to build enough capacity in Hawaii to take whatever is thrown at us, whatever the next pandemic may be. Because he knows that a new pandemic or a Coronavirus surge requires considerable, expensive external support, and that it will shut down the state again when we are closer to recovery, Governor Ige is making decisions very prudently and cautiously.

I do not agree with David Ige on many things. I do not agree with his tax policies and his political views. He is not the person you would envision being the life of a party. During the pandemic, he has calmly weathered attacks from all political sides and singularly carried a heavy burden as the Governor. I believe that David Ige’s decisions have cost this state and its taxpayers an immeasurable amount of money and put people out of business permanently. As much as that hurts, they are things that can be recovered and rebuilt. Through his prudence though, I believe that David Ige has saved an immeasurable number of lives. Though things are getting better, this pandemic is not over here nor around the world. Hawaii needs to finish the vaccination run to state herd immunity, and then prepare the state for what’s likely to come afterwards.