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VOICES: ‘Thanks to your collective efforts, we are in a good place’

It’s still hard to believe we are approaching one year of our COVID response here on Kaua‘i. Throughout the past year I’ve learned a lot about viruses and public health, but I’ve learned a great deal more about our community’s grit and heart.

A year into this pandemic and we are proud to say – thanks to all of your efforts – that Kaua‘i is in a very good place in terms of our COVID cases, fatalities, and vaccine distribution. We also know it’s not that simple, and every decision we make has consequences – both good and bad. Those who rely on our tourism industry continue to struggle, and for many the question remains: “What’s next for us?”

Above all else, I want every one of you who has taken the time to write or call to know your voices are heard. While we have tried our best to be open and transparent on the reasons behind our policies, a short video update or media interview cannot fully capture all there is to say.

Our Kaua‘i’s COVID-19 Incident Management Team consists of over 30 professionals across county and state offices. We meet weekly with the primary goal of protecting health and safety, but we also evaluate other important indicators, such as economic impact.

Since October 15, 2020, when Safe Travels commenced, Kaua‘i confirmed 151 new COVID-19 cases on Kaua‘i (104 travel, 11 travel-associated, and 36 community transmission). The bulk of those cases were reported in the weeks during which Kaua‘i participated in the Safe Travels program. Of the 104 travel cases, more than half were individuals who had a negative pre-travel test but later tested positive while on Kaua‘i. An additional 31 of them had positive pre-travel tests, but the traveler had not received results until after their arrival on island.

The rise in case counts here on Kaua‘i, coupled with the rise in cases across the state and nation, led Kaua‘i to opt out of Safe Travels in early December.

Since Governor Ige approved Kaua‘i’s Resort Bubble program in early January, all 10 Resort Bubbles are seeing a steady increase in occupancy, and some are even projecting 100% occupancy next month. We continue to process more applications for properties wishing to join the Resort Bubble program.

Direct flight arrivals into Kaua‘i from the mainland remain low but are increasing, and we continue to steady capacity with incoming inter-island flights. Many mainland travelers are making Kaua‘i their second destination after spending at least three days on another island, then taking a pre-travel test before arriving on Kaua‘i. This ensures they’ve had two COVID tests – one prior to flying into the state and another test prior to flying to Kaua‘i.

Unemployment rates and Payroll Protection Plan loans remain stable, while construction industry indicators are seeing strong increases.

One of the leading factors behind opting out of Safe Travels was to allow our limited on-island resources to focus on our vaccine distribution program. Our low case count has allowed the Department of Health to implement a vaccine distribution program that is among the best in the nation. To date, one out of every five individuals eligible to receive a vaccine here would have already received at least their first shot. In total, we have administered more than 19,000 vaccines, with approximately 1/3 of those being second doses.

As Mayor, I constantly ask myself if we were to change course on travel restrictions would our economy be any different. However, I understand that no amount of data or statistics can paint the full picture of what our community has sacrificed to get to this point.

Right now, it’s clear that focusing on vaccines while maintaining our travel protocol is the strategy that works best for our rural community. The Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidance on both travel and vaccine protocols confirms our focused course of action.

We are preparing to integrate vaccination exemptions into travel protocols, so that we are ready once health officials deem it safe.

Additionally, we will continue to vaccinate as many people who wish to be vaccinated as supply allows. We believe this is the clearest path forward in getting back to some sense of normalcy here on our island.

In the meantime, we understand even the slightest boost to our economy will help many of our small businesses who are struggling. Thanks to your collective efforts this past year, we are in a good place to work with our community partners toward adding the state’s Safe Travels program for mainland arrivals in the late spring – provided case counts in our island, state, and across the nation remain stable. By this time, we anticipate all food service and hospitality industry workers on Kaua‘i to be eligible for vaccines.

We are also hopeful that by this time, the State’s Travel program will have travel protocols for those fully vaccinated, and we will continue to work with Governor Ige, our Kaua‘i Incident Management Team, and our community to help define what is in the best interest of our island.

Mahalo for your patience and love for one another, and for allowing me this privilege to serve you during these challenging of times. We are not yet over the hurdle, but as we have many times before, our community will overcome this hardship and be stronger and more resilient as a result.

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Derek Kawakami is the County of Kaua‘i Mayor.
Source: The Garden Island

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