Hawaii recorded its highest daily number of coronavirus cases as Hurricane Douglas threatens to pummel the island chain.
“We’re actually looking at the perfect storm, literally, where we have an increase (in cases) of COVID-19, we have a hurricane coming our way,” Health Director Bruce Anderson said Thursday at a COVID-19 briefing at the state Department of Health. “We need to be extra vigilant about not spreading the disease here and making things as safe as we possibly can in the coming days and weeks. It’s incumbent upon all of us to keep our community safe.”
Health officials reported the death of a female Oahu senior who contracted the virus, becoming the state’s 26th fatality, along with a record 55 new confirmed cases — the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. The previous record was 42 daily cases, reported July 11.
“One of the things that’s remarkable about the cases is that they are representing a wide variety of different professions and activities … which suggest we are seeing some community spread on Oahu, more than we’ve seen in recent weeks,” Anderson said. “Many people recently have expressed concerns about opening schools in August. I wanted to emphasize that opening the schools — both the public schools, the private schools and our universities — is going to be dependent on our maintaining the health of our community. We need to be sure the rates of illness are low enough that the risks are relatively small.”
Officials warned that higher levels of COVID-19 circulating in the community could jeopardize the reopening of schools on Aug. 4, as well as restoring economic activity.
“The fact that the percentage persists or potentially increases is a red flag that our community still isn’t getting it together,” said state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park. “We’re backsliding now, and we can’t afford to keep backsliding because if we do, we jeopardize reopening further — we jeopardize bringing travelers back, we jeopardize potentially at some point reopening schools.”
The DOH acknowledged that it still doesn’t have specific trigger points that would determine the opening and closing of schools. Hawaii schools abruptly closed in March when there were much fewer COVID-19 infections.
Anderson said he met this week with a task force to determine the trigger points for schools and is planning to have additional meetings, but that has been stymied by Hurricane Douglas. He did not disclose who is on the task force.
Community spread of the disease is one of the major factors officials will be considering, in addition to school readiness and the ability of the Health Department to respond quickly in case investigations, contact tracing, testing and health capacity, and timeliness of test results, he said.
Thursday’s new cases included 50 on Oahu, three on Hawaii island and two on Maui, bringing the statewide number of infections since the start of the outbreak to 1,490.
The DOH is reassessing the metrics used to determine risk in the community, including using the overall percentage of tests that are positive instead of just the number of cases, Anderson said. While Thursday’s total was a record, the percentage of positive cases has essentially remained the same. Of the 111,291 coronavirus tests conducted so far by state and clinical laboratories in Hawaii, just 1.3% have been positive.
There are 339 active infections in Hawaii and 1,125 patients now considered recovered — or more than 75% of those infected.
Of all the confirmed Hawaii cases since the start of the outbreak, 155 have required hospitalization, with one new hospitalization on Oahu reported Thursday. There are currently 40 people diagnosed with the coronavirus in local hospitals, the DOH said.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he was troubled by the record numbers as Hawaii residents let their guards down.
While helping with a food distribution drive over the weekend, he said, “I saw choke baby luaus, more than a hundred under tents — no face coverings, no physical distancing.”
“And we see the result of these kinds of things,” Caldwell added while urging the public to take precautions. “So much sacrifice has been made, billions and billions and billions of dollars lost. And to go back and repeat it a second time, it would be just such a tragic, tragic situation of epic proportions. And people are dying. … There are life-and-death consequences that come with without being careful.”
Park also implored the community to practice social distancing, wear face masks in public, frequently wash hands and stay home when sick.
“Most cases are occurring as a result of people socializing and getting together either with work colleagues, extended family or friends in multiple type of settings — without wearing face coverings or distancing,” she said. “I continue to hope all in our community will maintain safe practices, but unfortunately the persistence of new cases would argue against that.”
Health officials said they continue to “track and investigate numerous clusters,” but wouldn’t divulge details of the outbreaks.
“Unfortunately, if we can’t get these numbers headed in the right direction, we may be facing the re-implementation of restrictions,” Anderson said. “No one wants that to happen, and this is why it is so critical that everyone does their part, every day, every place in practicing safety for the sake of the health of all in Hawaii.”