Speaker of the House Scott Saiki has submitted HB 1286 for legislative approval. This bill essentially calls for a unified Safe Travels program statewide.
It removes the power of individual mayors to opt out of the Safe Travels program, and it also appears to disable the governor’s ability to enact emergency legislation in regard to travel and COVID.
This bill is a really bad idea.
The next three months are filled with uncertainty.
As Dr. Janet Berreman, Kaua‘i’s district health officer, has stated, “We are in a race between vaccines in the arm and a tsunami of illness.”
Variants of the coronavirus have been blamed for huge surges in cases, particularly in the UK, possibly also in California and in other places.
Some of these variants are now in Hawai‘i, posing a huge threat, especially if more cases are imported.
The current Safe Travels program only requires a single pretest for a traveler to avoid quarantine. It has been well proven that a single test will miss 30% to 40% of those who are infected and traveling. A single test does not pick up anyone in the early stages of the disease or people who may have caught it during their travels.
The bill and the Safe Travels program ignore the CDC’s travel recommendations, which include a pretest, a seven-day, self-quarantine, and a second test three to five days after arrival. The bill also forces mayors to ignore these recommendations. It is very important to note that our mayor, by opting out and then instituting the bubble resort concept, has had the following results:
w In 2020 our hotel occupancy was almost equal to the other counties. Maui and Kaua‘i were both at about 33%. Most impressive, though, is that, from Jan. 17 to 23, 2021, Kaua‘i’s occupancy rate was at 19.7%, Maui at 20.1% and O‘ahu at 21.7%. There is also a steady increase in tourists using the bubbles for the first few days of their trips, with more hotels and flights planned;
• Kaua‘i’s vaccination program has been one of the most-efficient and rapidly-moving programs in the country, partially due to our very-low case count and the ability to put our resources into vaccinations rather than illnesses;
• We remain one of the safest counties in the country. Our local businesses and residents enjoy the freedom of the least-restrictive tier 4, while O‘ahu has climbed to tier 2 restrictions.
The good news is that places like California, which had a terrible surge resulting in a high number of deaths and filling their hospitals, appears to be on the downslope of disease.
It is even possible that the whole country is slowly starting to show some signs of recovery. The additional good news is that the vaccination programs are taking off, and that very-rapid, very-inexpensive home tests for COVID will be available in the very near future.
However, experts are saying that although there is some good news, the danger in the near future should not be underestimated. These variants can sweep through a community, overwhelming even the best of medical-care systems.
We will know a lot more over the next months, and may even find the whole world suddenly looking more normal.
We should not let down our guard at this junction. Kaua‘i was in the Safe Travels program for about seven weeks. During that time, we doubled the number of cases we had in the entire previous seven months.
Virtually all the new cases were travel-related. Kaua‘i opted out of the Safe Travels program and our numbers rapidly returned to less than one new case per day.
Maui remained in the program, and went from having about 1% of the cases in the state to having about 18% of the state’s total number. They began to see 15 to 30 new cases per day, and the Big Island was not far behind.
I believe HB 1286 should die in committee. Allow the mayors to decide what is best for their counties as we rapidly immunize. With the good numbers on Kaua‘i, we can and should further open the schools.
Bottom line: Don’t force the mayors to ignore the CDC recommendations. Roll out the vaccines, find ways to use the new, easy-to-use tests, and celebrate our good numbers by further opening schools. Above all, let’s not stumble at what could be the end of the worst of this pandemic.
This column represents a sharing of information. No content on this column should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinicians.
Lee A. Evslin, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of The American Academy of Pediatrics. He is a former health-care administrator on Kaua‘i and periodically writes a column for The Garden Island.