State health officials are projecting the coronavirus will be a serious threat to Hawaii for at least the next four to five months with the peak of the outbreak yet to come.
“The epidemiologists and others who are following what’s happening all over the world see this as a problem that we’re going to be living with for at least four or five months before we expect much relief,” Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson told the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 today.
“It’s not as the president suggested is gonna end on Easter. It will be a lot longer than that and the supplies that are available are certainly not gonna carry us through that extended period of time,” Anderson said. “We haven’t seen the main wave hit us yet. What we’re seeing are just cases that are imported cases — mostly people who traveled or have come into contact with others.”
President Donald Trump has targeted Easter, less than three weeks away on April 12, as the timeframe for reopening America.
Meanwhile, Gov. David Ige, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and others have imposed stay at home and work from home restrictions through April 30 to prevent widespread community transmission.
“I think we’re all getting to the point where we’re recognizing that it’s going to be a lot more than we’re seeing today in the not-too-distant future,” Anderson said. “This idea of going after each and every case and trying to find out who the contacts are is probably gonna be unmanageable in large part and then we’re just gonna be reverting to our social-distancing requirements trying to keep everything under control.”
Anderson stressed that the Health Department is scrambling to prepare for the current and future health care needs, as well as project what the case numbers might be when the wave of disease hits the population.
Today, the department reported a total of 95 cases statewide, up six from Tuesday. There have been 4,658 COVID-19 tests completed, all but 379 by private laboratories.
The Hawaii Healthcare Emergency Management Coalition, commissioned to maintain essential medical services in the case of chemical and biological emergencies, has assembled stockpiles of emergency supplies, including 179,000 masks, and the state is obtaining more supplies from the federal government. The Healthcare Association of Hawaii is also working to expand areas in the hospital that can be used for patient care and establish temporary facilities in the worst-case scenario.
However, Anderson said, “I fear that they’re inadequate for dealing with (this pandemic) and they certainly will be inadequate over the long run.”
Hawaii could see 40,000 to 45,000 cases by the end of April if drastic action isn’t taken, Caldwell has said. With fewer than 300 intensive care units in the state, projections indicate that Hawaii could exceed its capacity of ICU beds by April 25.
Hospitals, clinics and paramedics are already feeling the strain with cases of COVID-19, the flu and other severe respiratory illnesses circulating in the islands. Besides medical supplies and equipment, manpower is also lacking.
“What everyone else is trying to do is keep the numbers down as much as we possibly can. Of course, with the 14-day mandatory quarantine for visitors, we should drop that number down even further, at least the imported cases,” Anderson said. “The restriction on activities is really intended to keep us from passing the disease on to each other, which is what’s gonna keep this situation manageable hopefully as we go forward.”
The state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors and residents returning to Hawaii begins at midnight.
Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani Town) cautioned that new social-distancing practices will be even harder for Hawaii residents, accustomed to close greetings.
“I don’t feel that our community is taking this as seriously as we should,” she said. “I think it’s very hard for us here in Hawaii who are used to hugging and the aloha style. That’s just something we were brought up doing. It’s really a hard way to break it. (It) is really gonna be detrimental to us if we continue that practice.”
The Health Department is preparing to start public service announcements on March 30 targeting children and teens who “continue to congregate despite the warnings.”
“I think people are thinking this will pass. It’s overkill. I don’t think they realize how bad things are in places like New York,” Anderson said. “I hate to say it but we’ll probably have to (instill) a little fear out there to keep people home.”