Maui County looks into vaccine passport program

If approved, statewide pilot program could begin this month

Travelers pass through Kahului Airport on Oct. 15, the day the state’s pre-travel testing program launched. Officials are considering a vaccine passport pilot program that would allow travelers to get out of testing and quarantine requirements if they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Maui County is seeking to be a part of a vaccine passport pilot program that officials say could be a golden ticket for Hawaii residents and visitors to travel safely and more easily.

If approved by Gov. David Ige, the proposed vaccine passport pilot program would begin April 15 for interisland travel and then expand to trans-Pacific travel.

“We would like to see anyone that’s fully vaccinated and has had at least two weeks of incubation since the last vaccination to be able to come in and not have to take a test and go about their business,” Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said Wednesday during the county’s news conference. “This would be for residents and visitors alike who are fully vaccinated.”

Victorino said that the county has requested to be a part of the pilot program.

A verified COVID-19 vaccination card would exempt travelers from the current pre-travel testing and quarantine restrictions; Lt. Gov. Josh Green said a vaccine passport is necessary for the state to successfully and safely move forward.

An American Airlines jet approaches Kahului Airport in February. Maui County has asked to be part of a vaccine passport pilot program that would allow travelers who’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine to bypass testing and quarantine restrictions.

“We definitely need to do that just so we can provide hope for families so they can care for their kids, pay for rent; that’s important and it’s important that we don’t delay,” Green told The Maui News on Tuesday. “I hope and expect we’ll do it, and it’s not just for travel, it’s also for big events. So, ideally yes, it will help us to travel seamlessly, but in addition to that, imagine if you wanted to have a conference or a concert or a sporting event — all of those different events can be had safer if you demonstrate that you are vaccinated.”

Green, a physician and Hawaii’s Safe Travels program lead, said that a passport is “the safe way to go” and could be “another tool” for Maui County as it reopens.

“It wouldn’t have to replace every safety measure, but it could add to it,” he said.

A vaccine passport would not exempt the traveler from wearing a face covering.

Travelers who choose not to get vaccinated could still participate in the pre-travel testing program by getting a negative COVID-19 test result or opting for the mandatory 10-day quarantine at an approved location.

Green said that the rapid antigen test would qualify for a pre-travel test.

Carl Bonham, head of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said during a webinar on vaccinations and the economy on Thursday that “there’s nothing easy about setting up the vaccine passport.”

“I think the faster we can get a vaccine passport the better,” said Bonham, UHERO’s executive director and professor of economics. “What we’re potentially missing out on is visitor dollars this summer from people who are planning their vacations right now trying to make sure they can get a hotel and rental car on island but concerned that their vacation could still be destroyed because their PCR test results didn’t get back in time.”

Green said the Safe Travels program is working, but is often uncomfortable and expensive for travelers, and the “next iteration of safety is going to be a vaccine passport.”

Officials are working on the details of the program, including how to verify if someone is vaccinated, whether through an application downloaded onto a user’s phone or by checking the physical vaccination card a person receives after their shots.

New York and Israel have recently launched vaccine passport apps.

“I say test it out for a month and then begin to use it for Mainland travelers and in the interim race ahead the best you can to digitize it,” Green said. “If you don’t have the digital app, the card is sufficient. The card is standardized by the CDC.”

Concerns over forgeries of vaccination cards are an aspect to consider, though Green doesn’t anticipate this becoming a major problem, saying “we will still do some verifications manually if we had to.”

“You have to ask yourself, how crazy does someone have to be to falsify a vaccine record, pay all that money to travel to Hawaii, run the risk of a quarantine violation, which carries a $5,000 fine or a year in jail,” he said. “I’ll keep pushing and we’ll do the safest program that we can, but I don’t think we have to worry too much about fake vaccination passports.

“I think we have to worry more about people not wearing masks and feeling overconfident because we’ve started to vaccinate our whole state.”

Hawaii is on its way to herd immunity, with about 1.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine anticipated to be administered statewide by July 4, which is between 900,000 to 1 million people, Green said.

“If we keep this all in effect through 2021 — the option for testing — but meanwhile, if most people replace it with the vaccine card or passport that will be on an app, then that ought to be enough,” Green said. “I think most of the country is going to be vaccinated by midsummer. So I see it as a benefit.”

As of Thursday, 28 percent of the total population of Hawaii had received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health.

Green, who said in February that Maui County had 10,000 to 12,000 doses undercounted, assured that the county is on track with distributing vaccines.

DOH data shows that 28.1 percent of the county’s population has received at least one dose, which is in line with Hawaii island at 27.7 percent and Oahu at 27 percent.

Due to Kauai County’s small population size, a larger proportion of people, 37 percent, has received at least one dose.

The Valley Isle’s recent COVID-19 clusters, Green said, are probably because “people are feeling a little bit safe, and we’re not quite safe yet.”

“But my recommendation would be to go forward with things like the vaccination passport, continue to accelerate the vaccine rollout which we’re getting more doses each week, and no one should panic — we’ve seen a significant drop off in cases among our elderly,” he added.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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