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Hawaii governor says ‘now is not the time’ for tourists to visit while covid-19 crushes hospitals

Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) on Aug. 23 asked people to "reduce travel to Hawaii," citing the state's strained hospitals due to the coronavirus. (Video: Gov. David Ige)
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Hawaii Gov. David Ige pleaded with tourists from around the world on Monday to not visit the islands through at least the end of October, as the state grapples with an influx of coronavirus cases from residents and vacationers who brought the virus with them.

Although the governor’s announcement does not prohibit travelers from visiting Hawaii, Ige (D) said at a news conference that he is working with airlines, hotels and other tourism-related businesses to “do what they could” to curb tourism to the state except for people traveling for essential business. Restaurant capacity has been restricted, and access to rental cars is limited.

The governor urged travelers to curb their visits to Hawaii while the state’s hospitals are at capacity as a result of the highly transmissible delta variant. Although nearly 55 percent of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated — a rate higher than the national average — the delta variant in Hawaii, as it has elsewhere, has increased hospitalizations.

“Now is not the time to visit the islands,” Ige said at a news conference Monday. “It’s a risky time to be traveling right now.” He told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “I think it’s important that we reduce the number of visitors coming here to the islands.”

The state, however, is not re-tightening its entry requirements.

Hawaii previously required all travelers to present a negative coronavirus test to bypass the state’s strict quarantine, but that requirement went away last month for vaccinated travelers. And because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said domestic travel is safe for vaccinated people, Ige told reporters that reinstituting the negative-test requirement for vaccinated travelers to Hawaii would be difficult.

For unvaccinated travelers, the state is still requiring either a negative test result or a 10-day quarantine.

As the coronavirus vaccines became more widely available and pandemic restrictions were loosened or abandoned, people have returned to traveling, and more are heading to Hawaii. More than 791,000 people arrived by plane to the Hawaiian islands in June, the most recent month in which data is available, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The number of June travelers, who came mostly from the East and West coasts of the United States, was an increase from May, in which more than 629,000 visitors traveled by plane.

The announcement comes as hundreds of out-of-state health-care workers are being flown in to help overwhelmed hospitals during the fourth wave of the pandemic. Hawaii will receive $46 million in federal funding for more than 500 traveling health-care workers to be dispatched at hospitals statewide. The Queen’s Health Systems — which declared an “internal state of emergency” Friday after a spike in covid-19 patients forced the island of Oahu to set up a 25-bed tent outside a West Oahu hospital — welcomed 81 out-of-state health-care workers to its hospitals Monday, the Star-Advertiser reported.

“Our nurses are tired, and we don’t have enough of them to manage the numbers of patients that are coming in across all the islands,” Jill Hoggard Green, president and chief executive of Queen’s Health Systems, told the newspaper. “We have a huge number of covid patients coming in that need high-level respiratory support, mechanical support for breathing, whether it’s a ventilator or high rates of oxygenation.”

Ige indicated that the state could shut down if the surge continues to hammer Hawaii’s hospitals.

“If the number of cases continues to grow exponentially as it has in the last 10 weeks … then we will have to take action to limit and ensure that the hospitals aren’t overrun,” he told reporters.

Hawaii reported 893 new coronavirus cases Monday, bringing its seven-day average of new infections to 700, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. More than 400 people in the state are hospitalized with covid-19, including 79 in intensive care units.

John De Fries, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state agency in charge of promoting tourism, echoed Ige, saying in a statement that the agency is “strongly advising visitors that now is not the right time to travel.” Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said in a statement that the airline is “acutely aware of the stress on our health-care system imposed by new covid-19 cases.” Da Silva touted the state’s Safe Travels Program, which “requires travelers to be vaccinated or tested to avoid quarantine and has been effective in managing the number of travel-related cases.”

“We continue to believe that the single most valuable measure to address this crisis is increasing the vaccination rate in our community, which is why we have announced our intent to require our employees to be vaccinated,” Da Silva said.

The governor’s plea comes shortly after a mandate was announced earlier this month, forcing state and county workers to show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly.

The mandate has faced pushback from dozens of maskless vaccine opponents who’ve gathered outside a Honolulu condominium building where Lt. Gov. Josh Green (D) lives with his wife and two children, ages 14 and 10, according to the Associated Press. Some have yelled into bullhorns and shined strobe lights into the building, while others have posted fliers around the neighborhood of his face with the words “Jew” and “fraud.”

Green, who is Jewish, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Monday that he has been working his second job as an emergency room doctor, where he has been treating covid-19 patients. The lieutenant governor noted that all of the covid-19 patients he has seen in the E.R. were not vaccinated.

“They’re usually very tearful because they realize they could have prevented it,” he said. “They all are beside themselves because they know now they could die because they could’ve done the one simple thing, which was to get vaccinated.”

Green added that unvaccinated patients in the E.R. have recently demanded that he give them ivermectin to treat the coronavirus. Commonly used to treat parasites in animals, ivermectin has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat several forms of parasitic worms found in people. But the FDA and health officials have warned for months against using the drug to treat the coronavirus, saying its use can “cause serious harm.” The Mississippi State Department of Health recently issued an alert advising people not to take the drug, saying that “at least 70 percent of the recent calls” at the state’s poison control center have been from people ingesting ivermectin to treat or prevent covid-19.

Amid a surge in cases in the state, the lieutenant governor said he feels for people in Hawaii’s hospitals who’ve yelled at him “for not prescribing ivermectin or other treatments that don’t work.”

“At the end, it’s going to be science, not some kind of science fiction, that stops this pandemic,” Green said.

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