State leaders are hopeful that recently announced incentives and benchmarks will entice more people to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s too soon to tell what effect those efforts will actually have on inoculation numbers.
It was announced last week that the Safe Travels program will begin accepting vaccination cards issued from health care providers anywhere on the mainland when the state reaches a 60% vaccination rate.
That move will allow any domestic trans-Pacific traveler who has been fully vaccinated on the mainland to travel to Hawaii without requiring a COVID test beforehand.
When the fully vaccinated rate reaches 70% statewide, all travel restrictions will be lifted and the Safe Travels program will be terminated.
The state also announced that restrictions on gatherings and restaurant occupancy will loosen and be terminated when the state reaches the 60% and 70% vaccination rate, respectively.
To help drive lagging vaccination numbers, the state last week launched HI Got Vaccinated, an initiative to offer rewards for residents who receive vaccinations.
“Personally, I think these incentives are going to work,” Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara said during a livestream Wednesday. “What I really want is, with the governor announcing these different thresholds, that other people try to educate their friends and their family and say ‘hey, the vaccine is safe and effective.’”
While it’s still early, Hara said he thinks there will be a spike in the number of people wanting to get vaccinated.
Hara estimated that Hawaii might reach the 60% threshold around July 8 or 9, and by late August or September, “we should be out of this.”
But depending on the rate that vaccines are administered, it could be October before the state reaches the 70% threshold, state Department of Health spokesman Brooks Baehr said.
If the state averages 50,000 vaccines a week over the next eight weeks, Baehr said Hawaii would reach the 70% mark in early August, “but that’s pretty ambitious.”
Administering 40,000 vaccines a week, he said the state would reach that threshold in late August, while at a pace of 30,000 vaccines a week, Hawaii would hit the 70% mark in September.
And if only 20,000 vaccines are administered each week, it will be early October before Hawaii reaches a 70% vaccination rate.
“I’m not going to predict and I can’t predict how we’re going to do, but I do know those numbers,” Baehr said. “… We can’t really predict how it’s going to go. We’re going to make every effort to get there as quickly as we can and that’s what this whole campaign is about.”
Baehr said there are many reasons why people have not yet been vaccinated and the DOH hopes to address those reasons by focusing on outreach, education and access, while private sector partners offer incentives.
When asked whether he expects the number of vaccinations to increase, Baehr said, “I certainly hope so.
“We’re really pushing hard for it, and we’re looking at all those benchmarks the governor has established … to further reopen and further eliminate restrictions on our lives,” he continued. “Those are a tremendous carrot.”
According to Baehr, nearly 137,000 people registered on higotvaccinated.com by Wednesday afternoon, five days after the site launched, but it’s too early for the DOH to tell how effective the campaign will be.
“The question, of course, is how many of those 137,000 are already vaccinated and are on the page because they want to win prizes, and how many of them have been engaged and energized by the campaign and will be getting vaccinated because of the campaign …,” he said.
On the Big Island, Kona Community Hospital’s call center has not seen an increase or decrease in calls requesting the vaccine since the governor’s announcement, spokeswoman Judy Donovan said.
“We’re hopeful the incentive program will help Hawaii reach our targeted 70% vaccination rate,” she said. “I think it will move the needle for some who’ve been on the fence about obtaining a vaccine.”
At Queen’s North Hawaii Community Hospital, however, clinic staff says there has been a moderate increase in the numbers coming into its walk-in clinic over the past week or so.
But spokeswoman Lynn Scully said the hospital can’t determine what impact, if any, the announced travel changes and incentive program may be having.
“We’re not certain that prize incentives work for everyone but even if they work for only a small number of people, we feel it’s well worth it,” she said.
Every additional shot makes a difference, said Scully, which is why QNHCH is doing its own cash drawing next month.
Anyone who receives a COVID-19 vaccine at QNHCH or at an off-site pop-up clinic hosted by the hospital by July 2 will be entered into a drawing to receive $500 cash.
Anyone who has already received their inoculation from the hospital will be automatically entered into the drawing.
Hawaii faring well
When asked during the livestream how Hawaii is faring overall amid the ongoing pandemic, Hara said the state is doing “really, really well” and has been since the onset.
“If you look throughout this pandemic, Hawaii has probably the lowest numbers of infections, lowest number of hospitalizations and deaths since the beginning. So we’re doing well and we’re trending downward and I like what I see.”
Hara said he’s comfortable opening up travel when vaccination rates hit 70% because case numbers are trending down and vaccines have been effective.
“So I’m really comfortable if we get to 70% because our population will be protected, and especially those at greatest risk, the 60 and older, that we’ll be safe to open up,” he said. “What I’m not as comfortable with is some of the variants spreading primarily in Europe.”
According to Hara, some funding will be set aside and if officials feel vaccinations will not be effective against some of the virus variants, “we may do screening just for international” travelers. “But if everything is looking good, our plan is to shut (Safe Travels) down.”
Email Stephanie Salmons at email@example.com.