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University of Hawaii researchers urge the state to step up its coronavirus response

                                Kalakaua Avenue is seen without any vehicular traffic on Saturday in Waikiki.


    Kalakaua Avenue is seen without any vehicular traffic on Saturday in Waikiki.

A trio of University of Hawaii researchers is urging state officials to accelerate its public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, not only to save lives but to help restart the economy.

In a 16-page report, the authors recommend the state significantly expand testing for the virus, boost its contact-tracing capacity by adding scores of workers and isolate anyone who tests positive in hotel rooms at government expense.

UH-Manoa professor Robert Perkinson said unless the state adds capacity to trace every infection and isolate everyone who tests positive, Hawaii remains in “grave danger” of a second wave of the disease.

“This is an illness that has punished caution and delay all over the world,” he said.

Perkinson, a specialist in criminal justice, joined UH John A. Burns School of Medicine professor Seiji Yamada and Colin Moore, director of UH’s Public Policy Center, in writing the report titled “Crush the Curve: Urgent Steps Hawai‘i Can Take to Contain the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The report urges state officials to go beyond “the overly cautious” recommendations of U.S. authorities and emulate governments in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand, where the virus appears to have been contained through aggressive public health actions.

The authors said the report reflects the views of public health experts across the world as well as a survey of emerging scholarship on public policy responses to COVID-19. Interviews were also conducted with UH researchers and state government and community experts in a variety of fields.

The report calls for enlisting hundreds of workers to help battle the virus in three main ways:

>> Increasing surveillance testing to diagnose new cases and analyze patterns of the contagion. Testing would focus on patients with milder symptoms, essential workers and at-risk populations such as nursing home residents and prisoners.

>> Hiring hundreds of employees to accelerate the state’s contact tracing, which investigates the social interactions of each infected person in an effort to find new cases and prevent new infections. The authors suggest National Guard units might even help in this effort.

>> Significantly increasing the use of vacant hotel capacity to isolate every individual who tests positive and to provide housing for front-line responders and especially vulnerable people for the duration of the crisis. “Hawaii has a secret weapon: 50,000 empty hotel rooms,” the report says.

Following the report’s recommendations won’t come cheap, the authors concede. But Perkinson said the actions are essential to stomp out the virus in Hawaii once and for all.

State officials, he said, should look at the effort as if they were directing a war.

“When your house is on fire, you don’t stop to worry about water damage and mold. You put out the fire and then you take care of the water damage and mold,” he said.

“These steps will be difficult and costly to implement,” Moore said in a news release, “but if we are to safely restart the economy, they are absolutely necessary.”

The global pandemic has created a massive economic crisis, and Hawaii projects a $1.5 billion budget shortfall due to declining tax collections. Gov. David Ige is considering salary reductions or furloughs for government employees, including himself and his Cabinet members, and other cost controls.

Laboratories in Hawaii have tested nearly 22,000 people for coronavirus so far, with 2.5% — or more than 500 people — having been positive.

Perkinson said that while Hawaii has done a good job of meeting the first wave of the disease, a robust intervention is needed to meet a potential bigger COVID-19 wave, save lives and better position Hawaii for recovery.

He added that the intention of the report is not to criticize state officials but highlight areas that could use improvement as the response moves forward.

“Hawaii actually has a chance of leading the United States out of this,” he said.

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