Six people in Hawaii suspected of having the new coronavirus have all tested negative, though state officials are on high alert for the first signs of the deadly disease in the islands.
Three individuals under investigation on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island tested negative Tuesday, while three others were previously cleared of the virus, health officials said.
“It’s new, it’s unknown, it’s scary because of that and there’s no vaccine for it,” said state Health Director Bruce Anderson. “So there’s no way of really treating it. So all you can do is really isolate cases and hope that it doesn’t spread in the community.”
Health officials held a news conference Tuesday at the State Laboratories Division in Pearl City, where a worker suited in a surgical gown, gloves and a face shield over a mask demonstrated the testing process. The State Laboratory began testing for COVID-19 just a few days ago after delays in getting working test kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The lab has the capacity to test up to 250 cases a week, officials said, though under initial guidelines patients must have severe respiratory illness and either traveled to China or been in close contact with a confirmed case.
“At this point there is no confirmed case of COVID-19,” Gov. David Ige said at the news conference. However, he said, “We are seeing a slight increase in the number of people who are sick, and there’s no other explanation.”
Tripler Army Medical Center also is able to test for the virus, and the state is hoping private laboratories jump into the mix now that the CDC has cleared the way for private-sector testing.
“We are prepared for the worst and hoping for the best,” Ige said. “We clearly are looking at being able to accommodate as many tests as are required in our community.”
Testing has been expanded to include those who have traveled to Japan, Iran, Italy and South Korea, countries with large numbers of coronavirus cases. New procedures also allow primary care physicians who rule out other respiratory illnesses to request that COVID-19 tests be run for patients.
Meanwhile, state officials are looking for facilities on all islands to quarantine people in Hawaii who contract the virus that has rapidly spread across the globe, sickening more than 93,000 people and killing more than 3,200. One such facility is Leahi Hospital in Kaimuki; Wahiawa General Hospital is potentially another. Both are underutilized.
The facilities would be used for people who test positive but are not sick enough to be hospitalized and those who are homeless or do not live here but need to be isolated from the rest of the population. Residents living in multigenerational households also may be placed there to separate them from their families. A man quarantined on the base at Pearl Harbor, who did not show symptoms, was recently separated from his wife and child for 14 days after returning from China.
“We’re looking for places where people could get the wraparound services they need: meals and housekeeping and other things,” Anderson said, adding that the military offered the Pearl Harbor facility, but “it’s only available for those who aren’t symptomatic.”
With more testing capability, the Health Department is hoping to be able to survey the community to get a clear understanding of the extent of the virus, which is expected to inevitably circulate in the islands.
“Unless someone goes to a doctor with that illness, we wouldn’t know about that. For public health that’s a problem,” Anderson said. “We’re really looking forward to the day when we can go out and do surveys and identify people who we wouldn’t otherwise see.”
For now state officials are asking the public to be vigilant.
The University of Hawaii and Department of Education have suspended travel and programs to countries with coronavirus outbreaks and are making preparations to prevent community spread. Businesses including Hawaii Central Federal Credit Union are also “placing particular attention on the prevention of illness in our facilities” by setting up webinars or phone calls with business partners who frequently travel so they don’t have to come into the office.
“It’s prudent to avoid large crowds,” Anderson said. “If you’re worried about it, use common sense … stay away from sick people. I would not go into situations where you’re in close contact with lots of people — lots of strangers, in particular. A lot of it is going to be just personal choice. If you don’t have to go on a vacation, maybe it’s best not to. I honestly would be reevaluating travel to other places.”