State health leaders are certain Hawaii will reach a point where 70% of its population is vaccinated against COVID-19, but the question of when that might happen remains unanswered.
“Vaccination has slowed down a little bit, and we’re doing our best to keep it in the forefront of people’s minds and encourage them to get vaccinated,” state Health Director Dr. Libby Char said in a livestream Wednesday.
Gov. David Ige recently announced the state would relax travel and gathering restrictions on July 8, when 60% of Hawaii’s population is expected to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Additionally, Ige has said when the state reaches a fully vaccinated rate of 70%, all COVID-related emergency restrictions will be dropped, and the state’s Safe Travels Program will end.
“I know a lot of people would like to hit (the 70% benchmark) really soon,” Char said. “I think it’s going to take a bit longer, but we will definitely get there. So the real question is how long will it take us, and that’s really dependent upon the rate at which we continue to vaccinate people and people are willing to go out and get vaccinated.”
Although vaccines currently available have largely proven effective against the coronavirus and its variants, those who have been fully vaccinated can still contract COVID-19. However, acting state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said during the same livestream that’s a small number compared to the number of cases reported.
Out of the thousands of COVID-19 cases reported since vaccine efforts began, Kemble said less than 2% are “breakthrough cases” in individuals who have been vaccinated.
“If you look at those who are hospitalized out of the thousands and thousands of cases reported since January, we’ve only had five hospitalizations among people that have been fully vaccinated and no deaths reported,” she said.
“We know that the vaccines work,” Char said. “We know that it will keep you safe from Delta variant and any of the other strains of the (coronavirus), so it works. It’s not impossible to get an infection after you’ve been vaccinated, but if you do … you’re not likely to get severely ill from it. You’re not likely to be hospitalized from it. And I think that’s what’s really important.”
A day after it was announced that HI Got Vaccinated, a program to incentivize vaccination efforts, would expand through July and into August, Char said the biggest benefit of the campaign has been to keep vaccinations in people’s awareness.
“I think for people who haven’t been vaccinated yet because of whatever reason, that may have been enough of an incentive for them to actually go out and get vaccinated, so that’s been a good thing,” she said. “But there’s so many reasons why people haven’t been vaccinated yet, and so we sort of have to figure out what each person’s reason is and then address that, whether it’s questions or education or access.
“The important thing I think is just that the campaign has kept the awareness up,” she continued.
Reaching herd immunity
Kemble said it could take a higher percentage of vaccinated individuals to reach herd immunity.
“It could be higher than 70%, it could be closer to 80%. We just don’t know yet,” she said. “And with the new variants that could also skew what it takes to get to herd immunity.”
But watching the number of cases will help health officials understand the impact of the COVID-19 vaccines, Kemble said. As more people are inoculated, the number of cases will decline, she explained.
“It may be gradual, but that trend will happen.”
The Delta variant, a highly transmissible strain of the coronavirus that originated in India, continues to pose a threat to Hawaii.
The variant was first detected in Hawaii in June and 13 cases linked to the strain have so far been found on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island. Health officials, however, have previously said they expect the variant to quickly become the dominant strain in Hawaii.
“What’s concerning about the Delta variant is that we still have a lot of things we don’t understand about it,” Kemble said. “We don’t know what impact it’s going to have. There is data out there that says its more transmissible than other variants that have been circulating, even more transmissible than some of the other variants of concern. And there’s some concern that potentially it may cause more severe disease, although we’re still watching the signs on that.”
Health officials will have to watch the case numbers in Hawaii to see what happens, she said.
“We have a pretty highly vaccinated population at this point, and … we need to get more, but the jury is still out to see the impact the Delta variant is going to have,” Kemble continued. “And it means we need to still really emphasize getting vaccinated if you haven’t been yet because those are the people who are most at risk from these new variants.”
Returning to school
Kemble also addressed students’ return to classrooms, scheduled for August.
The state Department of Education announced in May that public schools in Hawaii will fully open for daily in-person learning when the 2021-22 academic year begins on Aug. 3.
Because of the pandemic, DOE schools have not fully reopened to in-person instruction since March 13, 2020.
“I believe that it’s really important that we’re getting our kids back into school. I’m glad that we are,” Kemble said. “It has taken a toll on the mental and physical health of kids in Hawaii to be out of school … . So the move toward full, in-person learning in the fall is really a positive step for Hawaii.”
Maximizing vaccinations among those who are eligible for the inoculation prior to returning to school is the best thing to do to improve safety in schools, she said.
“There’s still many other tools in the tool kit that schools are going to be using in the fall to ensure safety,” Kemble said. “It’s not one thing. It’s going to be multiple layers of protection and it’s that layered approach that has brought success to schools elsewhere and in Hawaii, even during times of high transmission.”
That includes wearing masks indoors, evaluating ventilation in classrooms and encouraging cohorts, she said.
According to Kemble, more than 98% of COVID-19 cases are occurring in those who are unvaccinated and added that there has been an uptick in pediatric infections and school-age children.
“So that’s something we really want to watch closely as we look toward reopening schools,” she said, adding, however, that most of those pediatric cases were exposed in their households.
Email Stephanie Salmons at email@example.com