After nearly a month of stay-at-home orders and quarantine to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, it is becoming clear that Hawaii communities are relatively free of COVID-19, and policymakers are considering the first steps to carefully begin to reopen the state, state Health Director Bruce Anderson said Wednesday.
Anderson told the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 that the state’s sentinel surveillance testing program through private medical providers and community health centers is giving the state a sense of the “pulse” of what is happening with the new coronavirus.
As tests have increased, “what it’s shown is we don’t have much disease out there,” he told senators.
Anderson’s comments as the state’s top health official come just days after Gov. David Ige said he is consulting with the four county mayors on “how can we in phases restore some areas to normal activity.” However, Ige also said he expects the state stay-at-home order will be extended beyond April 30.
The criteria for reopening the state include a good testing and surveillance program, a well-developed contact-tracing system, and designated places where people can be quarantined when new cases appear, Anderson told lawmakers.
The state also needs adequate personal protective equipment and a health care system with enough capacity to respond to any surge in the number of illnesses, he said.
“We want to have all that in place and be comfortable that we can respond before we start opening up the state,” he said. State officials who make the decision to reopen must be confident “that if there are cases that we’ll be able to deal with them and not have to close everything down again.”
Anderson acknowledged to senators that some of those items are “works in progress,” but pointed to others where the state is well-positioned.
He praised Hawaii’s contact-tracing program to seek out people who have been exposed to the coronavirus, adding that “we have probably the best program anywhere in the country in terms of the number of cases and staff we have available to do this kind of work. Most states have just given up contact tracing because there’s so many cases.”
The Hawaii contact-tracing program identifies and contacts 20, 30 or sometimes even 100 people who have had close contact with someone who tested positive, identifying and in many cases testing those contacts to determine if they have the virus. “Any close contact that we think may have been exposed, we will test,” Anderson said.
Anderson also praised the state’s coronavirus testing program, saying that “despite some of the criticisms, we have probably one of the best testing programs in the country. We have more tests than anyone else is doing, we have fewer cases, and fewer fatalities than any other state in the country.”
National data support most of that assessment. Data compiled by Vox shows that Hawaii ranks among the dozen states with the highest per capita testing rates, while Johns Hopkins University data shows Hawaii is tied with Montana for the lowest per capita infection rate in the nation.
Hawaii is also among eight states with the lowest per capita COVID-19 death rates.
Ige said he expects to make an announcement before the end of the week on what sort of extension of the stay-at-home order the state might impose. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced Tuesday he is extending the city’s stay-home order through the end of May, but is reopening city parks for exercise.
Both the city and state orders were set to expire at the end of April.