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State not ready for vaccine passport

State also concerned about rising case counts on Maui, Oahu

Gov. David Ige said Monday that the state needs records of those who have been vaccinated in Hawaii before it can implement a vaccine passport allowing people to travel without restrictions. AP file photo

Technological challenges and rising COVID-19 case numbers on Maui and Oahu remain obstacles for a Hawaii vaccine passport program that would exempt fully vaccinated people from interisland and trans-Pacific travel restrictions, Gov. David Ige said Monday.

“The challenge is that there’s no comprehensive record of those who have been vaccinated in Hawaii,” Ige explained during a news conference on Monday afternoon. “We have been focused on getting shots in arms. We’ve told the providers that they need to report on gross vaccinations provided so that we can report that information back to the federal government, but we did not explicitly require them to enter the vaccination records into the system.”

Creating a vaccination database would also include meeting standards and jurisdictions of each state, and possibly each county, Ige said.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its travel guidance to allow people who are completely vaccinated to travel within the U.S. without the need for a pre-travel test or a post-travel quarantine period as long as they continue to take precautions while traveling, like wearing a face mask, practicing good hygiene and staying at least 6 feet away from others.

However, the CDC also advises travelers to follow the restrictions of states and local governments.

Ige said Monday that the state is working on a pilot program with digital application companies CLEAR and CommonPass, which are already being used by a few airlines nationwide to validate negative COVID-19 results before travel, but there’s much more to consider before moving forward.

“We are seeing good results at this point in time and (CommonPass and CLEAR) have committed to incorporating vaccination data and status into platforms when it becomes available, so we feel pretty good about where we are,” Ige said. “We know it will take some time to be able to validate vaccination status of individuals in all the states, but we do know that companies like CommonPass and CLEAR are at the forefront of being able to verify vaccination status of individuals.”

The digital app would essentially partner with the state’s Safe Travels program in verifying vaccinations.

Doug Murdock, chief information officer of Enterprise Technology Services, said that “great progress” has been made since beginning the pilot programs in October.

“We are piloting things with them right now, that if the vaccination database would come online we could do it, but we’re just not sure how fast the vaccination database will be issued,” Murdock said. “They may have parts of the country first and then add as they go, and so it’s hard to peg a date, but it wouldn’t surprise me if by summer we could have this going and have that as an availability for all the people who want to come to Hawaii.”

While the governor said that it’s too soon to give a timeline for a vaccine passport program, he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser earlier Monday that it would take at least four weeks, but even then there’s “much work to be done.”

In the meantime, the state is mulling the possibility of lowering restrictions for interisland travelers who are vaccinated, but COVID-19 cases on Oahu and Maui are still a concern and the focus is more on “getting as many people vaccinated as possible.”

“We do want to see lower case counts before we open interisland travel again,” Ige said. “The primary reasons that it hasn’t happened at this point in time is that Oahu and Maui continue to have virus activity that is significantly higher per capita than the other counties.”

Until more people get vaccinated and case numbers drop, Ige asked residents and visitors to limit travel between islands.

Hawaii’s major airline also called for changes to the Safe Travels program after the CDC updated its guidelines on Friday.

“We are pleased to see today’s CDC determination that fully vaccinated people can safely travel domestically without testing or needing to quarantine,” Hawaiian Airlines spokesperson Alex Da Silva said in a statement on Friday. “We are hopeful the state of Hawaii will update the Safe Travels program to align with these recommendations. The CDC’s guidance underscores the effectiveness of vaccinations, as well as the comprehensive health and safety protocols adopted by the airline industry.

“While we must all continue to take personal responsibility to protect ourselves and each other, it’s time to restore freedom of travel to allow families and friends to reconnect and generate crucial economic activity.”

Maui County Deputy Managing Director Josiah Nishita said during a news conference Monday afternoon that until the state makes a decision on the vaccine passport program, all current travel restrictions remain in place and all inbound travelers to Maui are still subject to the quarantine or pre-travel test policy.

Meanwhile, Ige said that Hawaii is on track to expand the vaccination rollout again on May 1 to everyone ages 16 and older. The state Department of Health has already recommended that Neighbor Islands expand their eligibility; Maui Health opened vaccines to everyone ages 16 and older on Monday, and the Maui District Health Office has extended eligibility to anyone 18 and over.

While more evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to get COVID-19 and are possibly less likely to spread the virus, including during travel, the CDC said that research is ongoing.

“With millions of Americans getting vaccinated every day, it is important to update the public on the latest science about what fully vaccinated people can do safely, now including guidance on safe travel,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news release Friday. “We continue to encourage every American to get vaccinated as soon as it’s their turn, so we can begin to safely take steps back to our everyday lives.”

The CDC also pointed out that taking steps towards relaxing certain measures for those who are vaccinated “may help improve COVID-19 vaccine acceptance and uptake.”

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

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