Herd immunity: Hawaii at odds on including people who already got COVID-19

Hawaii health leaders are discussing whether to consider individuals previously infected with COVID-19 as part of the state’s immune population. As of Wednesday, Hawaii is 59.8% fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health (DOH). While this is significantly higher than the national average (49.3%), Hawaii is still shy of the 70% threshold health experts say is needed to reach herd immunity. Gov. David Ige also stated he would not remove all COVID-19 restrictions until the state reached this benchmark.


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In a briefing earlier this month, DOH director Dr. Elizabeth Char told state legislators that decreasing vaccination rates will make it unlikely Hawaii will reach 70% before September. 

At the briefing, Sen. Joy San Buenaventura asked if the DOH would consider individuals who previously had COVID-19 to determine when the state will reach herd immunity. She said states such as Oklahoma, who at the time was only 40% vaccinated, claimed to have reached herd immunity because the state estimated another 30% of the state had been previously infected. 

State epidemiologist Sarah Kemble responded that the DOH would focus on tracking vaccinations rather than prior infections.

“Hawaii…has had a pretty low burden of disease. So, even if we were to look at the numbers that have been previously confirmed infected here, it’s really a drop in the bucket compared to the tremendous number of vaccinations that we’ve been getting out there. The other thing to consider is that there is growing evidence now that vaccine may actually provide more robust and long lasting immunity rather than natural immunity does.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who previously urged Gov. Ige to lift travel restrictions to ease the strain on crowded state airports, said the state should implement surveillance testing to determine how many people previously had COVID-19 and include them in the herd immunity count. He told  Honolulu Civil Beat

“It’s not imperative that we do [surveillance testing] but the more information we have, the better decisions we should make. If we actually have achieved adequate immunity … then we should back off of restrictions and open up.”

According to the DOH COVID-19 dashboard, Hawaii administered 2,105 vaccine doses from Tuesday. At the briefing, Dr. Char encouraged people to continue getting vaccinated, particularly with the rise of the more transmissible Delta variant:

“We don’t get to choose what constitutes herd immunity — that’s a function of the virus and it’s definitely linked to how transmissible the virus is. That’s why we’re so concerned about some of the variants, because if they spread more easily, then we will need a higher percentage of our community to be vaccinated in order to be protected.”