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Vaccine mandates mulled

  • Dan Meisenzahl

  • David Lassner

As some mainland universities and institutions announce COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students and employees, discussions surrounding that possibility in Hawaii are ongoing across the state, Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said during a livestream Friday.

The challenge, however, is that the vaccines currently available have been allowed through an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he said.

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“We anticipate that the vaccine manufacturers will apply for full authorization, potentially even as early as the end of this year, and once it has full authorization, then employers can have mandates in place,” Raethel explained. “Many employers or health care organizations have mandates for flu vaccines, for example, which have full authorization.”

Although full authorization is anticipated, Raethel said the question of what happens between now and then remains.

“We are looking at it as an association,” he said of vaccine mandates. “We are consulting with some lawyers right now, a legal firm, to look at what potentially we could do.”

Raethel also said the University of Hawaii is considering a vaccine mandate for students returning in the fall.

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl, however, said in an email to the Tribune-Herald that no decision has been made.

“About 50 universities — that’s still a minority but it’s a growing number — around the country have announced their intent to require vaccination by fall,” UH President David Lassner said April 15 in a report to the Board of Regents. “And if we move in that direction, who would it apply to? For example, maybe just students who live in our residence halls. Maybe student athletes. Or all students, all faculty and staff.”

The university’s Office of General Counsel is working to understand the legal concerns and implications, he said.

“Clarity is emerging on that,” Lassner said. “A second kind of approach is to really see if there are ways to strongly urge (vaccination) without requiring it.”

For example, Lassner said there’s been discussion about surveillance testing. One approach adopted by another university is regular, mandatory testing for those who have not been vaccinated, he said.

“For now, UH continues to urge all members of its community — students, faculty and staff — to get vaccinated as soon as possible so we are that much closer to ending the pandemic and returning to ‘normal,’” Meisenzahl said.

Raethel said during the livestream that the vaccine rollout in Hawaii is going well.

“Right now, we have over 1.1 million doses that have been administered across the state of Hawaii, which is very, very good, but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “We need to get up to about 1.6 or 1.7 million doses before we get to that all-important herd immunity. So, we’ve done well, but we need to continue going.”

Although early vaccination efforts focused on Hawaii’s kupuna, Keali‘i Lopez, state director of AARP Hawaii, said during the same livestream the agency and its partners now are focused on “hard-to-reach kupuna.”

“Many of those kupuna who have wanted to be vaccinated have,” she said. “Now, it’s reaching out to those who (have) — I kind of call it — ‘vaccine apathy,’ meaning they’re interested in being vaccinated, but they’re not into … taking extra steps to make that happen,” she said. “So, reaching out to those folks and urging them to get vaccinated as quickly as possibly I think is really the next phase.”

Everyone in Hawaii 16 and older now is eligible to receive a vaccine, and Raethel said demand across the state remains “very, very strong.”

“We’re seeing a lot of young people showing up,” he said. “We are seeing … young people who are 16- or 17-years-old show up with their parents, which is really good.”

According to Raethel, HAH is working with a number of schools and organizations to get the word out about the vaccine availability.

However, there is a concern that individuals who don’t use English as a primary language or aren’t fluent in the language might not have enough information, he said.

HAH is working with the state Department of Health and other organization to translate as much information as possible into other languages, he said.

Lopez echoed those sentiments, and said English-language proficiency is an issue her organization is seeing.

“When we’ve gone to some of the senior housing facilities with the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, language interpreters were key because even though people were there to get vaccinated, they still had so many questions and didn’t understand what was going on,” she said.

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“Being able to have someone speak their language was critical to getting them to move toward actually getting vaccinated.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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