Last week, Gov. David Ige announced a string of new measures designed to curb the spread of COVID-19 throughout Hawaii. These measures are a response to the fact our state is now dealing with community transmission of the disease. Measures include: asking visitors to postpone trips for 30 days; ordering nonessential state workers to work from home; and having restaurants and bars move to delivery and pick-up services only.
On Friday, the governor extended public schools’ spring break for another week, hoping they might reopen as early as April 7; on Tuesday, schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said school facilities will remain closed through April 30. These actions are a step in the right direction, but do not go far enough. The governor should be more proactive in preventing new cases of COVID-19.
The governor should close schools for the remainder of the academic year. An early decision will not only help to cut down on the number of new cases; it will afford parents, teachers and students more time to adjust to our new reality. For example, some states are already rolling out online lessons for students in elementary school.
While children do not appear to be particularly susceptible to this virus, they can nevertheless transmit it to others for whom it may prove lethal, such as elders and those with underlying medical conditions. In a state which leads the nation with the highest percentage of multigenerational households, reopening our schools could lead to the development of an especially dangerous situation.
New estimates from the Global Health Institute at Harvard University project that unless drastic measures are taken to stem the tide of new infections, our nation’s health-care infrastructure will soon be completely overwhelmed. This situation is likely to result in the type of dilemmas currently facing doctors in Italy, where they are deciding which critically ill patients to treat with a limited supply of ventilators.
Throughout the country, health-care workers are already reporting shortages. If 40% of adults become infected over the next 12 months — a number that many experts consider to be optimistic — then our state would need to increase its supply of hospital beds by nearly 200%. The predictions are especially dire for those requiring intensive care. There are currently 340 intensive-care-unit beds in the state of Hawaii and only 73 in the Honolulu area. The Harvard study forecasts that we will need approximately 9.3 times more ICU beds for the most serious cases.
When confronted with similar estimates, governors throughout the country have acted swiftly and decisively. The Ige administration, however, is courting a public health crisis.
Taking a lesson from history, and in particular the outbreak of a particularly lethal strain of influenza in 1918-1919, the so-called Spanish Flu, we know that school closings can mitigate the spread of infectious disease. Epidemiologists tell us that the single most important action that local officials can take in these situations is to close schools and to close them early enough, and long enough, in the course of an outbreak so as to be effective.
No educator wants to sacrifice valuable classroom time with students. Pedagogy is much more than a profession; it is a guiding passion, a deep commitment and a way of life. All of us, however, have a moral obligation to minimize the spread of this virus, so as to protect the most vulnerable.
This is not a time for panic, politics, or economic calculations. It is the time for putting our islands’ health and well-being first.
Joseph Tanke is a philosophy professor and director of international cultural studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.