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Hawaii’s safety measures and its outdoor-friendly weather have helped keep COVID-19 cases low. Mia Shimabuku/Bloomberg/Getty Images
  • As COVID-19 cases decrease and vaccination rates climb, Hawaii is getting close to herd immunity levels.
  • Officials say the islands’ isolation as well as its warmer weather and outdoor activities have been factors.
  • The state also has travel safety protocols in place for visitors as well as Hawaiians traveling from island to island.

Hawaii may soon see a relative end to its COVID-19 pandemic, as some of its islands approach vaccination rates near potential herd immunity levels.

But despite a high vaccination rate — 61 percent of adults on the island of Kauai, for instance, have at least their first vaccine dose — the mask mandates are staying for now.

“Implementing these mandates are complicated. It’s something that we evaluate and look at all the data that we have and the best guidance from public health officials,” Hawaii Governor David Ige said at a press conference.

“I just wanted to remind everyone that as of today, only about 40 percent of Hawaii’s residents are fully vaccinated, which means the majority of us here in the islands are not vaccinated.”

The actual vaccination rate to achieve herd immunity for COVID-19 is unknown at present. Experts currently predict it’ll occur when anywhere between 70 and 90 percent of a population is vaccinated.

“It has to do when we vaccinate enough people that we actually slow the virus down [and] that we aren’t seeing sustained transmission,” Dr. Sarah Kemble, a Hawaii state epidemiologist, told Hawaii News Now.

“We appear to be on a path to full reopening,” Steve Seto, a brand consultant based in Honolulu, told Healthline. “In Hawaii, because of the weather and culture, a lot more daily activities happen outdoors. Our buildings are also much more airy and built for indoor-outdoor living, work, education, etc. So, in many ways it’s easier and safer for us to reopen safely, even before herd immunity.”

Hawaii’s current daily COVID-19 rate has hovered between 70 to 90 new cases daily as a 7-day rolling average recently, down from a height of 255 in August 2020, the New York Times coronavirus tracker shows.

So, while herd immunity may be on the near horizon for some Hawaiian islands, a cautious approach is probably merited, experts say.

“Given the variants and the unknown and heterogeneity of immune response post-vaccination or natural infection, herd immunity is really a moving target that cannot be properly defined,” said Gerald Commissiong, chief executive officer of Todos Medical, Ltd., a COVID-19 screening and testing company.

“I think the right thing is for people to be primarily concerned with their individual protection and take measures suitable with their profile. If you are vaccinated, the CDC says you can largely return to normal, and it is an individual choice to take added safety measures. There is a new post-COVID world that will become the new normal.”

The other concern, Commissiong said, is the possibility of new COVID-19 variants emerging that could come to the islands from visitors.

To that end, Hawaii has commissioned the Hawaii Safe Travels program, which requires visitors to the islands to register with the government website and show proof of a negative COVID test in the previous 72 hours in order to deplane in Hawaii without participating in a mandatory quarantine.

And within the Hawaiian islands, vaccinated residents of the state can now travel freely between the islands without testing and quarantining. However, they must register with the program and show their CDC vaccination card — a “vaccine passport” program of sorts.

Those measures have Seto confident that Hawaii will be able to continue to contain the pandemic on the way to herd immunity and return to a new normal.

“I am comfortable that with a combination of Hawaii Safe Travels protecting us from a massive import of new infection, combined with continued local vaccination and mask-wearing to be super conservative, we can reopen widely,” he said.