Hawaii Schools Expected to Fully Reopen

Picture of the Hawaii Department of Education Building

By: T. Jeffersonian

On April 15, 2021, Governor David Ige reported that he expects Hawaii schools to fully reopen for in-person instruction in the Fall 2021.  Ige emphasized that the quicker children and adolescents get vaccinated, the sooner schools can return to normal.  Ige said he hopes vaccinations will be available for students ages 12 to 16 before the start of the Fall 2021 semester.  Oahu expects to approve vaccinations for ages 16 and over on or around April 19, 2021.  The other Hawaiian Islands are already administering the vaccines to this age group. 

Earlier this month, Pfizer requested that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorize use of their vaccine in people ages 12 to 15.  Currently, the Pfizer vaccine can only be used by people 16 or older while Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines are only available for those 18 or older. People below 16 were not included in the three companies’ first clinical trials.  All three pharmaceutical companies have since started or completed studies on younger age groups.  

Johnson & Johnson however has had a set-back.   According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nearly 7 million people across the United States have gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.  Hawaii has only been allocated a relatively small number of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines — about 50,000 doses. Of those, nearly 18,000 have been administered here in the islands.  Johnson & Johnson vaccinations have been paused in all 50 states because six people have developed rare but serious blood clots after getting those vaccines.  

The six cases involved rare blood clots in vessels leading out of the brain, called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, or CVST, as well as low levels of platelets.  All of the cases were in white women between ages 18 and 48 and occurred six to 13 days after they received the shot.  Three patients also developed clots in other parts of the body. No one was pregnant or had recently given birth. Three were obese. One person reported hormone therapy. No other pre-existing conditions linking the cases were identified.  Of the six, one person, a woman in Virginia, died.  Four patients have not yet recovered. The sixth has been released from the hospital.  It is unknown when and if Johnson & Johnson will be cleared to resume vaccinations.  

Despite the set-backs to Johnson & Johnson, production, distribution, and administration of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine chains continue unabated.  The vaccine acceleration writ large enabled President Biden to increase his initial goal of 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days to 200 million in his first 100 days.  The United States has already surpassed that goal with 202 million vaccines given and appears on track for our children ages 12 and up to be approved for Coronavirus vaccinations by mid-summer 2021.  If this remains the case, fall 2021 in-person schooling in Hawaii appears a very realistic goal. 

The efficacy of the vaccines against other more contagious and more severe Coronavirus variants could potentially derail full return in-person learning in Hawaii in the Fall 2021.    Last week, a non-peer reviewed Israeli study discovered that the South African Coronavirus variant evades antibody protection provided by the Pfizer vaccine to some extent.  For some time, it has been known that Pfizer created anti-bodies are less effective in dealing with the South African variant’s protein shell mutations.  What is currently being studies is whether the Pfizer vaccine created killer and helper T-cells are effective in preventing the South African variant from becoming more severe in patients and spreading.  Though not finalized, the T-cell research thus far appears promising that the Pfizer vaccine does appear to prevent the variant’s severity and spread.   

For a return to full in-person learning in the Fall 2021, the University of Hawaii (UH) is weighing the possibility of requiring Coronavirus vaccinations for its community ― except for those who cannot receive the vaccine due to health reasons. UH President David Lassner told the Board of Regents on April 15, 2021 that at least 50 American colleges and universities plan to require Coronavirus vaccines by the Fall semester.  Lassner said he is looking at the legality of this proposal.  He and the Board of Regents are also trying to find ways they can offer vaccines or tests to students coming from out of state.  A second UH vaccination approach would be to strongly urge vaccination rather than requiring it.  The University is looking at an approach adopted by University of California San Diego requiring regular mandatory testing for people who have not been vaccinated.  The State Health Department is also expected to publish updated social distancing requirements for Hawaiian schools and universities and expects face masks to be mandatory on campuses for a while past the resumption of full in-person learning.