All state and county workers in Hawaii will need to provide proof of vaccination by Aug. 16 or be subject to weekly testing at their own cost ― and could be fired if they don’t comply ― under tough new vaccine requirements announced Thursday by Gov. David Ige.
The rules, which would cover tens of thousands of government employees, represent the most dramatic effort yet to get more shots in arms and drive down a surge in COVID infections statewide. In addition to all state and county departments, the University of Hawaii is covered by the protocols.
“The number of cases and hospitalizations are all trending up dramatically,” said Gov. David Ige, in a news conference Thursday. “The highly contagious delta variant creates a big risk of infection.”
He added that those who don’t follow the order “could be subject to termination.”
But key details of the program have yet to be ironed out, including how employees would seek exemptions ― or whether there would be any exemptions at all.
Because government workers won’t be able to complete the two-dose vaccines by Aug. 16, the governor said those who opt for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines would need to initiate their vaccination, submit to weekly testing and then provide proof they are fully vaccinated.
The governor said it isn’t clear what percentage of state and county workers are already vaccinated.
Ige announced the emergency rules on a day when Hawaii saw 655 new COVID infections, the highest single-day total for Hawaii since the pandemic began.
“Based on the current conditions, I must take action to protect public health,” Ige said.
At the same time, the governor said he wouldn’t institute any new restrictions on businesses or activities. He said those would likely not help to drive down cases because of the wide community spread of the virus, but added that he and the mayors will discuss whether some walk-back is needed.
The state’s announcement comes as vaccine requirements are gaining momentum locally and nationally, and onlookers hope the governor’s action drives Hawaii private businesses to follow suit.
Hawaii’s four major hospital networks have already announced policies of their own. And on Wednesday, the state announced public school student-athletes would need to be vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the state House has also imposed a vaccine requirement for its members and staff. They’ll have until Sept. 30 to get fully vaccinated. Those who don’t will have to undergo a weekly test.
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Thursday that his goal is to “see all of our employees vaccinated.”
“We’re going to require vaccinations except for medical or religious beliefs,” Blangiardi said.
But Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami had a softer message.
“This thing has been painted and promoted as a mandate, it’s really not. We’re giving options,” he said, adding that workers can either “opt in” to getting vaccinated or getting regularly tested.
“Our associates have choices to make.”
The delta variant, which is much more transmissible than the original virus, has driven a significant increase in Hawaii COVID cases. The vast majority of those infections are among the unvaccinated.
State Health Director Dr. Libby Char said that 300 out of 10,000 unvaccinated people in Hawaii are getting COVID. By comparison, 6 out of 10,000 vaccinated people in the state are contracting the virus.
“Vaccines work and they’re been very safe for our community,” Char said.
Hawaii Island Mayor Mitch Roth said they have no choice at this point, “It was our sincere hope that we wouldn’t have to come down to this to get people to do the right thing for the community,” he said hospitals are filling up and the intensive care units are near capacity.
The state and counties are moving forward with the vaccine requirements without agreement from public worker unions because this is an emergency measure.
The governor said the state and counties are “prepared to defend” the vaccine requirements. The unions, meanwhile, said details of how the mandate will be implemented must be negotiated.
“Somewhat troubling to see how employees rights are being trampled,” said Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association.
Leaders from six unions joined forces for a press conference after the governor’s announcement.
They said they were not against vaccine mandates but they wanted to be part of the conversation and wanted consultation before the state moved forward.
“We are committed to discussing and bargaining this mandate,” said Liz Ho, administrator of the United Public Workers.
Osa Tui, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said the new policy leaves out many important details.
“Instead of a collaborative approach, the governor and mayors are choosing a more confrontational approach,” he said.
The union leaders say they are discussing possible action with their attorneys.
The requirements also prompted concern from other quarters, with some saying the governor had gone too far.
City Council member Augie Tulba has been vaccinated, but is against a mandate.
“We all have rights. I believe we all have personal choice,” said Tulba. “I don’t think anything should be mandatory — as simple as that.”
Others are waiting for the vaccines to get final FDA approval, which could happen next month.
But the private sector may be moving ahead with its own rules, including some unwritten ones.
Sheryl Matsuoka, of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said eateries are already expressing a preference for vaccinated applicants over unvaccinated ones.
“We’re hiring more employees. We want to be sure that they’re vaccinated,” she said. “And if there’s two candidates and they’re exactly the same — they’re both dish washers, they both have the same amount of years of experience — the restaurateur is going to choose the vaccinated employee.”
Sherry Menor-McNamara, of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, added: “We need to explore all options, and mandates are one way to ensure that we can increase the vaccination rate.”