Police detectives, teachers and government workers who have been idled by the pandemic might need to be drafted into service to work on a more aggressive coronavirus contact tracing program in Hawaii, according to the authors of a new paper published by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.
Researchers Sumner La Croix and Tim Brown also make a case for more extensive use of tracking technology to help enforce the quarantines of people who continue to fly to Hawaii or who have been exposed to the coronavirus.
“The best way to restart the economy is to control the pandemic,” said La Croix, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “If we don’t control the pandemic, we’re not going to be restarting the economy. People aren’t going to be willing to engage in that kind of social interaction. We’re not going to find tourists here.”
La Croix said in an interview that the UHERO paper is meant as a “springboard for discussion,” and said the state in some ways had made good progress in combating the disease. The mandatory quarantine was imposed in a “reasonable” time frame, and — with some exceptions — the public has generally respected the stay-at-home orders, he said.
He predicted there will
be much more compliance with the stay-at-home orders over the next two or three weeks, and the use
of masks also will become routine. From there the key is adequate testing, comprehensive contact tracing of people who have been exposed, and making sure those who have been exposed are isolated, he said.
“I think if we do that, we’re going to find ourselves being able to essentially open up the nontourism economy not too far up the road,” he said. That nontourism economy amounts to about 77% of local economic activity, he said.
On the other hand, if the state caves to pressure from people who want to reopen too early, “we’re going to see the virus sweep back, and we’re going to have a second, resurgent epidemic in front of us.”
To launch an effective program of contact tracing, the state needs to reallocate government personnel to the effort, something La Croix said does not appear to be happening yet.
“That’s got to change. Clearly, the Department of Health needs a massive infusion of resources to do contact tracing. If we don’t do contact tracing, I just don’t think we can get this epidemic under control in a reasonable way,” he said.
The paper also proposes that a testing protocol must be established before mass tourism can restart to ensure that visitors coming to Hawaii are not infected.
Gov. David Ige was asked about that idea Monday, and he replied that testing will have an important role to play in the hospitality industry in the future. He said state government is looking at all of the testing options, but there are some problems with the current options.
The PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, test — which is the most commonly used test for diagnosing the new coronavirus — is a “point-in-time test,” he said. “If you test too early, when the person is asymptomatic, it may end up being a negative when they are really infected,” Ige said.
“Clearly, testing in the future is the answer for us to restart the economy much, much quicker, but those tests have to be proven to be accurate and reliable,” he said.
Brown and La Croix contend the stay-at-home restrictions should be gradually lifted only after the state reaches a number of milestones, including the ability to test all people with coronavirus symptoms, and the capacity to actively monitor all people with coronavirus symptoms and trace the close contacts of all virus carriers.
Other signs that the government restrictions could be lifted would be a sustained reduction in the number of new novel coronavirus cases for at least 14 days and that hospitals can safely treat all patients without resorting to the use of overflow facilities.
Ige was asked Monday when he thinks the state stay-at-home order will be lifted, and he suggested it won’t be anytime soon.
“It’s too early right now,” he told reporters. “We’ll be evaluating. I just want to remind everyone here that this is a marathon. We expect to see ups and downs in the reported cases.” And he urged all residents to do their part to stop the spread of the virus by staying home and maintaining social distancing.