COVID delta surge trending down, but Hawaii experts warn not to let guard down

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — In order to keep the positivity rate down and COVID case numbers stable, experts warned that the state needs to keep its guard up moving forward and to be careful about easing restrictions.

The University of Hawaii’s Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group (HiPAM) forecasters said there are several reasons why cases have dropped: more testing is being done, vaccination rates are up, there are 10,000 fewer travelers entering the state daily than at the beginning of August and more restrictions have been put in place.

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On Aug. 23, Gov. David Ige asked visitors not to come to Hawaii.

Then, on Aug. 25, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi decreased gathering sizes to 25 outdoors and 10 indoors, and on Sept. 13, Safe Access Oahu began.

“While people are like, ‘well, it’s no longer in the 1000s now we can breathe,’ it’s still a math and an epi equation where 400 people a day for two to three weeks is still a lot of people with COVID,” said Dr. Thomas Lee, UH assistant professor of epidemiology and part of the HiPAM modeling group.

Experts added that that kind of mentality could ignite another coronavirus surge.

“If they see small numbers, then they adapt the other way and they let the guard down,” Dr. Monique Chyba, a HiPAM forecaster and UH Department of Mathematics professor, explained.

Historically, when people let their guard down, it gave the virus a chance to spread, and the delta variant proved just how quickly it could spread.

“The big question now is how far do we go before we start relaxing?” Dr. Chyba said.

The state went from 60.1% fully vaccinated on Aug. 1 to 67.2% on Sept. 25, leaving just over 100,000 Hawaii residents still unvaccinated.

“We have to still be a little bit careful with the reopening because the delta will find them if we don’t reopen cautiously,” Dr. Chyba added.

Forecasters said it is hard to predict what impact mitigation measures may have because it requires speculating people’s behavior.

If there are no changes in vaccination rates and transmission, the model predicts COVID cases could drop to below 250 by Thursday, Sept. 30. The best-case scenario is if vaccinations go up 20% and transmission drops, the state could enter October with 185 cases. The worst-case scenario would be 322 cases by Thursday, which is still better than where the state currently is at.

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re at the tail end for delta,” said Dr. Lee. “But once again, another variant can come up, but hopefully the worst is behind us.”

He said the majority of the population has some sort of protection, either through natural immunity or being vaccinated.

Doctors said natural immunity wanes after a few months, and people who had COVID will have much higher protection if they are vaccinated. Experts also said mask-wearing and the safe travels program should remain in place, and testing must remain readily available.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green agreed and said the state still has a long way to go in order to get numbers down and there is no need to rush.

“We need to get those numbers way lower so that a surge can’t hurt us,” he said. “I think we should be somewhat conservative in opening up and gradually, just gradually, reduce restrictions.”

“I just think if people hold on a little longer, we’re good, but they’ve done a great job. These last three weeks have been very successful in Hawaii to both stop the delta surge and to begin to dig out from a really deep hole in the hospitals,” he added.

Dr. Lee said the state will always need to remain vigilant moving forward due to tourism. He said the state already sees flu season year-round.

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“We have people come from all parts of the globe, so we are continually exposed to the flu year-round. Same thing with COVID, until the world gets more vaccine equity and is protected against COVID, Hawaii itself can’t really breathe a sigh of relief from being free of COVID because we’re going to continue to have visitors, people returning from places across the world that are not yet at the protection level from COVID,” he said.

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