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Editorial: Trace for coronavirus containment, then carefully restart Hawaii businesses

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                                COVID-19 screening was again held at Kakaako Waterfront Park on April 5.


    COVID-19 screening was again held at Kakaako Waterfront Park on April 5.

At some point, we’ll all have to get back out in the world again to attempt something approaching normal life. But first there needs to be a substantial degree of illumination. Stumbling around in the darkness, figuratively or literally, never ends well.

That’s sure to be the reality check for how the nation and world can recover from the coronavirus pandemic, but a picture specific to Hawaii is coming into at least a soft focus.

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) has drafted a plan titled “How to Control Hawaii’s Coronavirus Epidemic and Bring Back the Economy: The Next Steps.” Economists Sumner La Croix and Tim Brown authored it, and it presents a well-founded and rational strategy.

The challenge will be preventing the medical, political and economic realities on the ground from upending the best-laid plans, whether it’s this one or any future revision that lays out “the next steps.”

One idea in the UHERO draft that could provide some immediate direction is the proposal that government workers who have been sidelined by the stay-at-home order could be drafted to help with “contact tracing.” That’s the critical function of identifying those whom a COVID-19-infected person had contacted, potentially passing on the virus.

That is a good idea. Bruce Anderson, director of the state Department of Health, said the agency already has help from 30 volunteers, including retirees and nursing and medical students. Currently this work is essential to managing further community spread from the cluster of positive cases at Maui Memorial Medical Center.

During a news conference held Friday in the governor’s office, Anderson said that a longer-term staffing increase will be needed; that conclusion seems borne out by the national experience thus far.

“It’s become obvious that this is something we need to do for the long run,” he added.

But in the near term, the UHERO suggestion to reassign idled state workers to this task makes perfect sense. Down the road, it will be necessary to charting a course back to work without sparking a second wave of cases, nullifying all the progress made by a population that is making great sacrifices now.

The question is, how far down the road are we talking about? When can “normal life” begin again?

Nobody has a precise answer to that, of course, and it’s already clear that this will be a “new normal” for some time to come.

But the draft plan adopts the same position put forward by many health-care experts speaking out locally and nationally: When the disease is managed and there is a means of ensuring safety, that’s when it should happen, and not by any specific date-certain.

The four criteria, which at a minimum do seem essential:

>> The state must record a sustained reduction in new cases for at least 14 days, which is the incubation period of the virus.

>> Hospitals in each county must have the capacity to treat all patients — diagnosed with COVID-19 and other serious conditions — without resorting to “crisis standards of care.”

>> The state and private providers combined must be able to test all people with coronavirus symptoms.

>> The Health Department has the capacity to actively monitor all people with coronavirus symptoms, and to trace close contacts of virus carriers.

The blueprint endorses the restrictions the state and county governments have implemented to this point, despite the deep economic shock they’re causing. The first part of the economy to reopen, La Croix and Brown wrote, should be workplaces not associated directly with the visitor industry — the “non-tourism economy.”

This makes sense. Hawaii needs to step carefully — and may need to retrench at times, if there is a flare-up in infections — so prematurely encouraging tourists to return could easily backfire.

With the non-tourism economy, there could be more effective local management of the process, defining the conditions under which business is conducted and by whom. Once visitors come in from the four corners of the globe, those controls become much more difficult, if not impossible.

There is hope that this approach, or one similar, can be manageable. On Wednesday, Gov. David Ige named former Hawaiian Electric CEO Alan Oshima to lead the recovery planning and execution.

Oshima acknowledges that broad collaboration with experts and stakeholders is required; the process indeed must be guided by community health protocols.

The need for wider testing, encompassing contacts of those confirmed with COVID-19 and others, must be addressed. Further improvements in testing, smartphone apps and other technologies must be part of the ongoing conversation.

It was good to hear that the state will use an app (on the Web at to help with tracking visitors put in quarantine. Innovations will be the key to success on the road ahead.

Only the most careful planning, and adherence to fact-based rules, will bring Hawaii there. The first fact: We’ve got a long way to go.

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