Numbers Game: Anti-COVID Restriction Advocates Challenge Hawaii’s Reasoning, Right to Enforce Safety Protocol
March 12, 2021, 5:03 PM HST
* Updated March 12, 6:55 PM
A small but vocal group of Hawai´i citizens on the Big Island have waved signs and sent emails over the last several months, calling for an end to mask-wearing mandates and COVID-19 restrictions in general.
Their argument is simple: That more people in Hawai´i have died of the flu in recent years than have died due to COVID-19 complications in the roughly 12 months since the pandemic reached the state’s shores. The numbers they call on are statistically factual. The context surrounding those numbers and the argument behind them, however, is far more complex.
Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, Hawai´i’s second-ranking political official and a physician by trade, said that appropriate context is something anti-COVID restriction advocates ignore in their push to end policies that have proven inarguably lifesaving.
“If you want to play a numbers game, we can play it, but we’ve saved thousands and thousands of lives just by doing basic interventions,” Green said.
The Numbers Game
As of Friday, March 12, the Hawai´i Department of Health had identified at least 449 COVID-related deaths statewide since the pandemic began roughly one year ago.
In 2018, a total of 526 people died from influenza/pneumonia-related causes. The year prior, that total was 637 individuals. One has to go back to 2014 to find a flu season that produced fewer deaths statewide (438) than did COVID since it was unleashed a little more than one year ago.
There is not a health expert in Hawai´i who will dispute these flu and COVID death tally numbers. One of the primary spokespeople for the Big Island-based group of anti-restriction advocates, Michelle Melendez, said the statistics above justify a rollback of coronavirus safety protocols.
“Currently (15) states have lifted their coronavirus restrictions,” Melendez wrote in an email to Big Island Now. “Their people are mask-free while Hawai´i is still enforcing mask mandates.”
US President Joe Biden and the nation’s top health officials have decried decisions in states like Texas to abolish all COVID-related safety protocols and open economies back up to 100% capacity, referring to those moves as premature and, in Biden’s own words, “Neanderthal thinking.”
The reason why is the context provided by larger virus trends that Melendez and her fellow anti-COVID restriction advocates omit from the arguments they set forth.
During the 2018-19 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated just over 34,000 individuals living in the United States died from influenza/pneumonia-related illness. The CDC is the same source of Hawai´i flu deaths referenced by Melendez above.
Examining a little more than one year of coronavirus data, Johns Hopkins University has confirmed over 532,000 Americans have died due to complications from COVID-19.
This total is 15-times greater than the number of influenza-related illness from the most recent year of US data available, and it has occurred despite lockdowns, travel restrictions, social distancing requirements, and mask wearing protocols across the nation.
But that is not an effective argument against restrictions. These statistics do not prove COVID-19 safety protocols were unnecessary because so many people fell ill and died. In fact, Green said, the data proves the exact opposite. Without those restrictions in place, health experts say the number of human lives claimed by COVID-19 would certainly be exponentially higher, resulting in a US death toll easily eclipsing a tally in the millions.
Even with all the measures enacted, precautions taken and hardships endured across the country in an effort to stifle the coronavirus pandemic over the last year, the US death rate increased by 15%. That is according to data generated by Johns Hopkins University. The increase in the death rate made 2020 the deadliest year in recorded US history, with COVID-19 related illness registering as the third-highest cause of death in the nation behind cancer and heart disease.
The same logic and statistical reasoning must also be applied to Hawai´i, where mandates have not only been more stringent than in most other states, but have also garnered more compliance from the population.
“We had much better mask wearing (compliance) ⚊ consistently over 90%,” Green said. “That’s one big thing. Some places don’t have any at all.”
Hawai´i was also the beneficiary of unmatched geographic isolation. A roughly seven-month ban on untested, non-essential travel ⚊ from March 24 to Oct. 15, 2020 ⚊ protected the state when the contiguous 48 on the mainland could do little to meaningfully halt interstate movement. Following that time period, Hawai´i instituted the Safe Travels Program, which implements a mandatory 10-day quarantine and requires pre-travel testing (and sometimes layered testing, depending on the county) for any who wish to exempt themselves from it.
These restrictions, along with social distancing and mask-wearing mandates ⚊ precisely the safety protocols that Melendez and her group speak out explicitly against ⚊ are the sole reasons that COVID-19 deaths in Hawai´i over the last calendar year have been lower than influenza deaths in previous years.
The Hawai´i-centric statistics the group is using to claim that virus restrictions are unnecessary (fewer flu deaths than COVID-related deaths) were only possible because of the very COVID-related restrictions the group wants to see eliminated.
“We have the Pacific Ocean, as well as the Safe Travels Program to eliminate 70% to 80% of cases that would have come in (post lockdown in October),” Green said. “Had we done nothing, we could have had 10 million travelers over that time, a large number of them positive (for COVID-19).”
Green on Friday offered statistics of his own to show the dramatic impact coronavirus safety protocol has had on the state’s population.
A total of 330 million people live in the United States. Hawai´i’s population represents 1.4 million of those, or approximately 1/235th of all people residing in the country.
Based on the 29 million cases identified nationwide since the pandemic began, and taking into account Hawai´i’s population compared to that of the entire US, the islands should have seen 125,000 COVID-19 infections to this point in the pandemic. The state has reported just over 28,000.
Based on the state’s population density compared to the 532,000-plus deaths across the country, a total of more than 2,250 Hawai´i residents should have died from the virus. The death toll to-date is 449.
All told, the state of Hawai´i has produced approximately 5-times fewer infections and 5-times fewer deaths than should have been its share based on total US infections and fatalities.
Furthermore, the projections from the Hawai´i Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) were 4,479 deaths should the state have chosen to do nothing in an effort to curtail the spread of the virus. These projections were based on the option of letting the virus roll through the islands and infect approximately 70% of the population in a rush toward herd immunity.
And those projections were generous, Green said.
“If you let 70% of the population get COVID, then 980,000 people would have caught it,” Green said. “(Based on the current 1.6% mortality rate), that would have equaled 15,680 dead.”
Green acknowledged that the total number of actual deaths under a strategy that enforced zero COVID restrictions would have been less than the nearly 16,000 determined by the math above, based on the fact that a large percentage of infections are not identified because the symptoms are mild or non-existent. Still, Green said, the state’s virus protocols ⚊ while challenging, economically devastating, and at times onerous ⚊ undoubtedly saved “many thousands of lives.”
Influenza and pneumonia numbers are also “drastically decreased” over the previous year, Green said, owing to mask mandates and widespread compliance with them. Hard statistics have not yet been released by the State Department of Health, but Green said the last 12 months have shown how kūpuna can better protect themselves during the height of flu seasons in years to come.
“Older people who are vulnerable should be wearing masks during the worst six to eight weeks of risk,” he said. “It is a purely optional program, but that’s what Asia does. It will work. We have proved it.”
The Lieutenant Governor added that the attitudes of anti-restriction advocates toward kūpuna is the most disappointing element of this debate.
Through May and early June, the state reported almost no cases at all. At one point, there were only 29 cases identified over 31 days. Those were lockdown-pace numbers and not sustainable long-term, Green ceded. But concerted efforts statewide by all demographics of the population to comply even more with COVID-directives would have spared several lives now lost in Hawai´i.
“The COVID mortality rates are gigantic for people over 85, and it starts getting bad at 65. Compared to people in their 20s, the mortality rate for the elderly over 85 years of age is 8,000 times as high,” Green said. “It isn’t that bad when compared to middle-aged people like me, but it’s still really high.”
“When young people complain about this kind of thing, they’re not considering the effects on our kūpuna, unfortunately,” Green continued. “Masks are a small price to pay to stop a virus that kills old people.”
That is not to say that young individuals, anti-restriction advocates, and everyone else in the state has not suffered. As such, the Lieutenant Governor on Friday offered to hear the group out.
“I’d be happy to have a virtual town hall meeting at some point, but not in-person (due to COVID restrictions),” he added.
Melendez noted a petition her group has put together, garnering 574 signatures to date, which asks Gov. David Ige to convene a town hall to address their concerns. Several members of the group emailed Big Island Now over the previous days, claiming the response they received from the governor’s office was that he was too busy to meet with them.
Group members’ characterizations of the governor’s response could not be confirmed Friday, as Big Island Now had as yet seen no official communications from the governor’s office addressed to the anti-restriction advocate group.
However, Gov. Ige’s communications team released the following statement to Big Island Now Friday afternoon.
“Gov. Ige has conducted several town hall meetings recently, and at those events he has directly addressed some of the issues raised by this group,” the statement said. “Specifically, he said the science on wearing masks is clear. It prevents the viral infection that causes COVID-19 and slows the spread of the virus. The governor’s policy decisions continue to be based on the latest science and guidance from the CDC.”
Legality of COVID Protocol
Members of the group also contend that mask-wearing mandates and other COVID-restrictions on things like travel violate their constitutional rights.
The Constitution of Hawai´i affords the sitting governor emergency declaration powers, which Ige has invoked to create and enforce coronavirus safety protocol. The State Legislature during the 2021 session has taken up a measure that, if passed, could curtail some of those powers by requiring legislative approval.
A description of the bill, which has passed the House and is now moving through the Senate, reads as follows:
“(The measure) clarifies that the powers granted for emergency purposes shall not be inconsistent with the state constitution. (It) provides parameters for the duration of suspension of laws and requires justification for the suspension. (The bill) requires approval of the legislature by concurrent resolution to extend to a date certain, or deny the extension of, a proclamation of a state of emergency time requested by the governor beyond sixty days of its issuance, unless the legislature fails to take action, in which case the state of emergency is automatically extended for sixty days.”
Opponents of COVID-19 restrictions implemented by the governor during the coronavirus pandemic have brought legal challenges before the courts. Thus far, all judgements have ruled in favor of Gov. Ige and the State of Hawai´i.
Those who wish to learn more about or sign the petition Melendez and her group have put forth may do so at www.TinyUrl.com/HawaiiPetition.