Governor David Ige of Hawaii has been chastised for insisting that the state’s Safe Travels program remain in place until at least 70% of Hawaii’s population has been immunized against COVID-19, according to travelpulse.com. Because COVID-19 vaccines aren’t allowed for use in children under the age of 12, that figure is closer to 82 percent of residents who are eligible for vaccination.
While that bar may have already appeared to be difficult to reach, two Hawaii epidemiologists believe that even achieving those vaccination rates will not be enough to halt the spread of the highly communicable Delta variant. They believe that the state should extend the Safe Travels program, which has become the country’s most stringent set of traveler entry requirements.
“No, I don’t believe that’s a safe benchmark anymore,” said Dr. Tim Brown, an infectious disease modeler and senior fellow at the East-West Center, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser. “It actually would have been a safe benchmark probably for the virus last year. It was low enough, effectively, at that point. The problem is, the more infectious the virus is, the higher the level of protection needed to reach so-called herd immunity.”
Dr. DeWolfe Miller, emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii and fellow of the American College of Epidemiology, concurs. In fact, if it were up to Drs. Brown and Miller, no one who isn’t fully vaccinated would be allowed to board a plane bound for Hawaii, despite the fact that states aren’t allowed to make such a demand.
“We need to take every effort to crush this right here or we are just playing Russian roulette,” Miller said. “Right now, I don’t think that I’ve ever been so concerned. The safest, most conservative policy would be 100 percent vaccinated—that’s not epidemiological, it’s common sense. All the rest (of the public safety policies) are just workarounds.”
The epidemiologists believe that the COVID-19 landscape in America has changed due to the dominance of the virus’s highly transmissible Delta variant, which is being blamed for the increasing number of cases in Hawaii and the United States mainland. Since the busy Fourth of July holiday, case counts on the islands have skyrocketed, with Saturday marking the tenth consecutive day with new case counts in the triple digits.
“The seven-day average of new cases went vertical this week,” Brown said. “Most of the rest of the U.S. is going vertical too.”
The fact that the state’s vaccination rates have dropped dramatically in recent months isn’t helping matters. According to the most recent data from the Department of Health, 59.6 percent of Hawaiians are fully vaccinated.
The scientists’ concerns are shared by the state’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, who is also an emergency room physician. According to him, approximately 22% of the new COVID-19 cases that have arisen in Hawaii this month are related to out-of-state travel.
“It’s highly likely that Safe Travels will be left in place throughout the rest of the year because it has effectively kept our travel-related cases down,” said Green. He believes that policies should actually be toughened, especially for returning residents who choose to quarantine instead of testing or getting vaccinated.
He advised, “Everyone should be vaccinated if traveling or at least get the pre-test. If you are not vaccinated, you shouldn’t travel right now because the risk of catching Delta is so high. People with the Delta variant have as much as 1,000 times the viral load.”
Critics who fear that Hawaii will lose tourists to other destinations are upset that the state has kept its travel restrictions in place while other parts of the country have relaxed them. Miller, on the other hand, contends that the Aloha State is justified in remaining more restrictive due to its remote location and limited resources.
“We are 5,000 miles out in the middle of the water. You have a very small number of people coming by water, but most are arriving by air,” he said. “If you live in Wyoming, there’s not a thing you can do about your borders—there’s just too much space.”
Despite the continued entry requirements, Hawaii’s visitor arrivals are already approaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels. The Safe Travels program, however, is not cheap to maintain, according to the Hawaii Department of Defense, which told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the state spent $10 million on the program during the first half of 2021 and that costs are averaging $3.1 million monthly as visitor numbers increase.