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Hawaii’s top epidemiologist warns state lawmakers to prepare for more coronavirus cases

  • JAMM AQUINO / APRIL 18
                                Typically busy Kalakaua Avenue is seen empty as the sun sets in Waikiki.

    JAMM AQUINO / APRIL 18

    Typically busy Kalakaua Avenue is seen empty as the sun sets in Waikiki.

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Yellow tape was wrapped around a picnic bench Friday at Kahala Community Park to serve as a reminder that the park is still closed. Mayor Kirk Caldwell is extending Oahu’s stay-at-home, work-from-home order “with modifications” through May and is reopening city parks — for exercise only — beginning at 5 a.m. today.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Yellow tape was wrapped around a picnic bench Friday at Kahala Community Park to serve as a reminder that the park is still closed. Mayor Kirk Caldwell is extending Oahu’s stay-at-home, work-from-home order “with modifications” through May and is reopening city parks — for exercise only — beginning at 5 a.m. today.

As Hawaii leaders continue to explore ways to reopen the economy, the state’s top epidemiologist warned lawmakers Friday that a second wave of COVID-19 is likely on the horizon and the state had better be ready.

“We’re in a marathon, not a sprint,” State Epidemiologist Sarah Park told senators at the Capitol. “A vaccine is a long time coming and we have to prepare. It won’t be business as usual. We have to think about social distancing in earnest and as a normal part of our lives.”

She made her comments as the state Department of Health announced two more coronavirus-related deaths and five new cases, bringing the total number of COVID-19 fatalities statewide to 14 and the number of cases to 601.

The deaths occurred on Oahu, both men over 65 years old with underlying health conditions. Officials said the first man had been hospitalized since the beginning of April and had traveled to Las Vegas in March. The second man was hospitalized with an infection apparently acquired in Hawaii.

Gov. David Ige issued a statement offering his condolences to family and friends of the two victims.

“While the death rate from coronavirus in Hawaii is among the lowest in the nation, the tragic passing of these men emphasizes the need for social distancing, staying home when sick, washing hands and other measures to protect everyone and prevent serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths,” Ige said.

Friday’s new cases include three on Oahu and one each on Hawaii island and Maui. Of the 601 total cases, 463 have recovered — a rate of 77%. State and private laboratories have conducted 28,272 tests, among the highest in the nation per capita.

Appearing before the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, Park told members that Hawaii needs three things in place before the state can open: a strong health care system, a strengthened public health system and ready measures to slow down the spread of a second wave of the virus when it is reintroduced.

“If the health care system isn’t strong, there’s no sense in reopening,” she said.

Park, chief of the state’s Disease Outbreak Control Division, said hospitals and front-line primary-care providers, such as community health centers and solo practitioners, need to be well equipped with enough personal protective equipment to weather the storm.

When providers are forced to close because they don’t have enough masks, for example, patients can’t get their prescriptions or the medical care they need, so they end up in emergency departments, placing an even greater burden on hospitals, she said.

Park said a strengthened state public health system is needed in case the second wave is even bigger than the first.

“We managed through this first wave. But if we have something more, like a New York style, we will be drowning,” she said.

Park said government mandates that reduced the number of visitors to Hawaii and kept residents in their homes helped support the Health Department’s efforts to conduct contact tracing, the process of identifying those who may have come into contact with an infectious person. The epidemiological investigative work is key to controlling the spread of the disease, she said.

“One thing we have maintained through this is the contact tracing,” she said. “But many of my colleagues (in other states) stopped long before because they could not handle it. They did not have the resources.”

The final measure the state needs before opening up, Park said, is a variety of social-distancing guidelines to help slow the spread of the coronavirus when it’s reintroduced.

“We cannot keep it out, but we can slow it down. We know how to slow it down,” she said.

Park said COVID-19 wasn’t the only respiratory disease to be knocked down by the lockdown measures. Flu cases, for example, have dropped in Hawaii to the point where it has practically disappeared. Other contagious respiratory conditions also have been more scarce.

“If you look at our weekly reports, it’s all come down,” she said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a COVID-19 vaccine could take 12 to 18 months to develop, test and approve for public use — and that’s only if some corners are cut.

“One day I hope we’re out of this, so that (life) is back to normal,” Park said. “But it’s going to be a long time before that. We just don’t know what this virus is going to do as time goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Healthcare Association and state health officials continue to recruit volunteer medical professionals to join the Hawaii Medical Reserve Corps, whose members will be called upon in the event of a surge in COVID-19.

Officials reported Friday that 226 people have signed up for the corps so far. Volunteers who are not currently working in clinical roles are being sought, and nonmedical volunteers are also needed. Sign up at nlk.doh.hawaii.gov.

In other developments, city parks on Oahu will be open starting at 5 a.m. today, but only for active exercise. It’s part of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s plan to begin reopening the city.

Additionally, Lt. Gov. Josh Green announced Friday that the governor will soon open up the state’s beaches for exercise. No details were released, however.

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