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The Conversation

Mayor Says Vocal Minority Opposed to Vaccine Rules Is 'Very Unsettling, Especially Given What's at Stake'

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Since Monday, patrons of Oʻahu restaurants, bars and other businesses have had to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to dine in. With the "Safe Access Oʻahu" program in its first week, City and County of Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said the city is taking these measures to avoid another shutdown.

The COVID-free mandate comes as critics of vaccinations and COVID-19 restrictions are becoming more vocal and more aggressive. The Aloha Freedom Coalition has planned a march in Waikiki on Saturday, and members have been confronting the mayor to express their displeasure.

Read Blangiardi's interview with HPR's Catherine Cruz below — it has been edited for length and clarity.

BLANGIARDI: First of all, the anti-vax group — while they've protested here, and I read this morning that they have a planned march again in Waikiki — has been really not about Safe Access Oʻahu. It really has been about the whole vaccination, and why we're not using some kind of other medicines in our hospitals, and the fact that we issued a vaccine mandate. So let me just talk briefly about Safe Access Oʻahu because that was a strategy that was really well thought out in the best interest of having people feel safe.

We've tried to take into our own hands, if you will, strategies that would keep us from locking down — keeping in mind we've had now some 74-, 75,000 cases, I haven't seen the latest from the Department of Health but it's about that as far as numbers of cases. More than half of those have been in the last 60 days, in fact, a higher percentage than that in the last 30 days especially. What that brought with it, some 25,000 cases just the last 30 days, was unprecedented pressure on our hospitals and resources. So we needed to do something short of the state just completely locking down to try to take control of the situation. Our decision-making really shifted towards the metric of our hospitals. In the beginning, when they first put the tier structure into place back in September of 2020, before we even came into office, it was all about case counts at that time, positivity rates. Hospitals were in there as a metric but the hospitals were not being pressured.

That evolved over time and we got into office in January and moved nicely through the tiers — that evolved somewhere around May to June in talking about vaccination levels. It was a real shift. Even though we'd moved into Tier 4, we were looking at the vaccinations. I can remember very clearly hoping on July 1 that the governor was going to lift our restrictions. Instead, they came out and held back, and said July 8 they would make an announcement. What they did was they constructed a Tier 5 which was tied to vaccinations and they made the statement that once we got to 70% (vaccinated) they would drop all restrictions. We looked like, just coming out of the tunnel, you could see the daylight, it looked like we were there. And you know, it would just be a matter of time and then the Delta variant rose its head and got very aggressive and we saw case counts grow exponentially.

But with those case counts, also came hospitalizations — incredible, unprecedented pressure on our ICUs (Intensive Care Units). And for that matter, created even a couple of weeks ago, a very real scare in our oxygen supply. Behind all of that, which many people don't talk about, and a real concern of mine, was the unprecedented pressure on our health care workers, literally working around the clock and working at capacity, our hospitals were at capacity. They have a capability of going beyond capacity, which they were. I think Ray Vara at Hawaiʻi Pacific Health, they were at 125% capacity. And they built for that but that's a lot of strain. So for the first time in the pandemic, they requested FEMA health care workers, and we were fortunate to get and we now have had over 600 of them and if it wasn't that helping spell the incredible pressure that our health care workers were under, I'm not so sure what would have happened. So all that said, our decision-making has been designed to try to keep our economy open and at the same time, make people feel safe. So it started with our own employees on mandatory vaccination policy.

If you look at the cluster reports, which we get weekly, I can tell you right now restaurants and bars, and gyms to some level, but restaurants primarily are the second-highest group of cluster reports in cases next to our correctional facilities. We don't have any say in the correctional facilities, but then we stepped in and we worked closely with the Restaurant Association. We wanted to learn from the cities that had done similar things — San Francisco, New Orleans, New York City, global, really great cities, even Guam — on what they did with vaccination passports, saw what they had done wrong, saw what we could do right.

In the spirit of keeping people safe, we announced this program in conjunction with the Restaurant Association to try to keep us open, allow people to go on with their lives as normal. We didn't overreach, we didn't get into supermarkets or retail locations or so many other things. We just wanted to be as specific as we could, and allow enough people to live normal lives to require proof of vaccination, so other people who go there would feel safe.

So now in the midst of all of that these people that are against the vaccine for one reason or another, I don't know how large their group is going to be but I can tell you it's a highly charged group and that's their position and hopefully, they can go about their protest, which they have a right to do, in a civil manner. Some of it to date has not quite been that way. I don't fully understand quite honestly, it baffles me why they are so adamant about this, but I will say this to you: 88% of our state population that is eligible to be vaccinated as of today has initiated one vaccine, the way it is right now is 66.1% of the state is fully vaccinated — 74.6 of the state has initiated the vaccine. Of those eligible, because this excludes the 203,000 kids who are not yet eligible and we have 119,000 children aged five to 11 whom would be eligible for vaccines if the FDA approves vaccinations sometime, perhaps before the end of October, but when you back out that 203,000 number, so you just look at the people who could actually get a vaccination, we're at 88%. That is tremendous community compliance.

I think that's a statement from the majority about what matters to them. Right now from a governing standpoint, the majority, in this case, is saying they don't like this disease any more than anybody else, they're doing whatever they can. Personally, I'm still amazed how many people I see wearing masks outdoors when they don't have to, but they are — and all the other efforts they're making by showing up and getting vaccinated. I can tell you in the last 10 days or so we invested over $16 million just in testing. We've expanded our testing all around the island, especially on the West Side where we really need to have additional help, because of concerns of people getting sick. And they wanted to find out and be tested free now, which is what we're doing.

So look, I know this is a vocal minority, but there are a lot of people here, really, really good people who don't want to die, who don't want to get sick, are trying to protect themselves and trying to protect their families. That's who we're paying attention to and we're doing everything we can to create safe workplaces and safe outings for people to go to so they'll feel good and safe hopefully about what they're doing.

CRUZ: But that vocal minority, there are some who are just openly defying government officials. We saw the Department of Health closed down one downtown establishment because they were refusing to comply. I don't know if this group that's protesting on Saturday got their permits to march. I think people are getting uncomfortable watching this group grow in numbers and become more vocal, or more aggressive maybe is the word.

BLANGIARDI: Catherine, I'm not gonna hide it. It's very unsettling, especially given what's at stake. You know, today the deaths were reported — we lost 15 people, yesterday eight. 23 people died in just the last two days. You know, I think that's heightened the testing and the people's desire to go and get vaccines. We are just below 700 deaths here and a lot of that has escalated in just the last two months. I don't know how these people could become more defiant in the face of something that is very real and very threatening to so many people. I just don't understand it.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 17, 2021.

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