Hawaii health officials contend the state is not ready to reopen the floodgates to tourists as community spread of the coronavirus continues, particularly on Oahu.
“Our community is not maintaining safe practices. We are not ready to receive visitors or returning residents,” state epidemiologist Sarah Park told a Senate Special Committee on COVID-19. “Until our community shows we can maintain safe practices, I don’t think we’re ready.”
The Department of Health reported 29 new coronavirus cases Wednesday — including 27 on Oahu and two on the Big Island, bringing the statewide total number of infections since the start of the outbreak to 1,292. Kona Community Hospital reported late Wednesday that three of it employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and that it plans to test all staff, affiliates, physicians and contractors today for exposure to the virus.
On Monday, Gov. David Ige announced a one-month delay of a program that would allow travelers who test negative for COVID-19 to bypass a 14-day mandatory travel quarantine, following a spike in infections locally and on the mainland. The program is now scheduled to start Sept. 1.
The travel quarantine could remain in place for the foreseeable future because health officials “don’t know what the disease dynamics will be,” Park said.
“A huge unknown is our own community, not just in Hawaii but in the U.S.,” whether people will comply with wearing masks, physical distancing and other safety measures, she said, adding that there were at least three waves of disease over three years in the 1918 flu pandemic. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing all across the U.S. and even in our own community is people aren’t wearing the masks and they aren’t physical distancing.”
In anticipation of an uptick in cases, health officials are working to build a sufficient public health workforce to identify new coronavirus cases, trace contacts and ensure those infected are isolated to stop the spread of the disease. The DOH has 179 existing staff trained in contact tracing and has a goal to bring on at least 100 more to augment the workforce, Park told the committee.
But more testing and contact tracing is not what’s going to prevent the spread of infections, she said.
“The safe practices are what really matters,” Park said.
In response, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz argued that the state — not the counties — should take a more active role in directing safe policies, including mandatory mask wearing while out in public. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell earlier mandated the wearing of masks, but the governor has not made it a statewide policy.
“If voluntary compliance is not working … why wait for the mayors? I don’t think that’s effective. Why not just develop a consistent policy for all? If not, we’re never going to be ready,” he said.
The DOH reported 319 active infections, with a total of 951 patients now classified as “released from isolation” — nearly 74% of those infected. Hawaii’s coronavirus death toll remains at 22.
Of all the confirmed cases locally since the start of the outbreak, 137 have required hospitalizations, with four new hospitalizations reported Wednesday. As of Monday evening, 23 people remained hospitalized for COVID-19. Of the 99,387 coronavirus tests conducted so far by state and clinical laboratories, 1.3% have been positive.
But as people become more complacent, the fear is that “we’re going to start seeing problems very soon” similar to the record high case counts being reported in some states on the mainland, said Health Director Bruce Anderson. As schools, businesses and travel reopen, he warned there’s a potential for significant infections if the community is not careful.
“That’s the perfect storm … that’s where we’re going to see major problems if we don’t have a resilient community,” Anderson said. “We’re concerned that the community is letting down their guard and it’s premature to do that. I don’t even know if we’ve seen the Fourth of July (cases) hit yet. It’s spreading in the community to a point where we’re going to see cases regularly.”