LIHU‘E — Job recovery is lagging behind a rebounding tourism industry as the delta variant of the novel coronavirus causes cases to surge, experts say.
“The visitor recovery has surprised everyone,” Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization, told state representatives at a meeting held on Monday.
“The pent-up demand, the excess savings, the wanderlust, everything that drove the visitor arrivals … put us at roughly 90% of 2019 levels (in July).”
The number of visitors exceeds experts’ most optimistic projections, according to Bonham. However, jobs recovery is only 40% complete.
“Back in the early part of the pandemic — April, early May (2020) — we lost 153,000 jobs,” he said. “We’re still down 94,000 jobs.”
Bonham had no “exact answer” for the state’s underperforming job market, but offered several theories for the nationwide phenomenon, which is predominant in the service industry. These included hesitancy to work, for fear of exposure to COVID-19, businesses attempting to maximize profits through smaller staffs, and low wages.
Bonham indicated pandemic-related unemployment benefits have a negligible impact on the unemployment rate, which was 11.2% on Kaua‘i in June, the highest in the state.
“Benefits are having some impact on people’s willingness to work. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “It’s not the only factor … if you compare those states that eliminate those (benefits) with states who didn’t, there’s virtually no difference in their employment-to-population ratios.”
Bonham said it’s discouraging to not see a surge in employment just yet, but it’s still possible.
“I still think we’re going to see that, because the strengthening demand for workers will continue to grow and you’ll see wages continue to grow and encouraging people to go back to work,” Bonham said.
Representatives were also briefed by leaders in Hawai‘i’s health care system, including Jill Hoggard Green, CEO of Queen’s Health Systems, who spoke of the highly contagious delta variant making its way across the island chain.
“When we talked about COVID and its spread, we’d say one person usually spreads it to two to three people,” Green said. “With the delta variant, one person can be spreading it to seven to nine people.”
Just over 60% of the state population is fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health. The vast majority of delta cases are among unvaccinated individuals, who run a greater risk of contracting the disease and experiencing more-serious symptoms, experts reported.
“If you’re vaccinated, you are fighting and you’re fighting hard,” Green continued. “But if you are unvaccinated, you are not prepared to fight that virus. So, the rates of hospitalization with unvaccinated people may actually go up.”
And that’s what Green is already seeing.
“About two weeks ago, I would say we had about four patients in Queen’s hospitals that had COVID. This morning, it was 56,” she said. “Every day, it’s rapidly going up and it’s rapidly going up predominantly with individuals that are unvaccinated … all of our health systems, we’re prepared to care. There’s no question. But we’ve got to mobilize getting those vaccinations.”
Bonham, Green and other speakers said the good news is, “we already know what to do” to combat the delta variant: get vaccinated, wear a mask and stay six feet apart.
Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of the Hawai‘i Medical Service Association, compared the ongoing pandemic to a worsening rainstorm. The vaccine is a raincoat, he said, and facemasks are umbrellas.
“If it’s not raining too hard, the raincoat is going to do well. It’s going to keep you pretty dry,” Mugiishi said. “But if it starts to really pour, then maybe, even if you’re wearing a raincoat … you might get wet. So common sense says take an umbrella, too.”
Scott Yunker, general assignment reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or email@example.com.