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Editorial: Get tougher on virus scofflaws

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Hawaii is staring its worst-case scenario in the face: Hospitals’ capacity to care for the very sick is compromised, and in danger of real collapse.

It is this, above all, that forced state and county leaders to tighten restrictions on public activities last week. The precarious state of the economy, the need to find safe ways of conducting both some form of in-person education for the keiki and a starting level of tourism activity, also are driving forces behind the order Gov. David Ige authorized on Thursday, in effect at least through Sept. 4.

But nothing is as basic as our ability to survive the onslaught of the coronavirus, as well as any other potentially grave condition that sends people to the hospital. The word was dire from those who know the health-care network best. If Hawaii continues on its current trajectory of rising COVID-19 infection rates, the care provided at hospitals will be stretched too thin.

And D-Day is coming soon. According to models projecting viral spread prepared by Hawaii Pacific Health, the inventory of intensive care unit (ICU) beds will be tapped out by Aug. 19-21.

The problem, clearly, is most acute on Oahu, where most of the surge in cases has been recorded, with infections scattered throughout the population and in clusters fueled by various social gatherings. The island has the state’s largest hospital capacity, but Hilton Raethel, who heads the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said that it will not last if residents do not change their behavior.

“If we do not act, literally, right now, we are going to be in a very difficult situation,” Raethel said in a telephone interview. “And we do have resources … but if we don’t get off this trajectory, we’re going to blow through all of that.”

The state did act Thursday, promptly reinstating a 14-day quarantine for Oahu residents traveling to the neighbor islands. The need to insulate the neighbor islands as much as possible is undeniable, given that the entire state has only 340 ICU beds and most are on Oahu.

Most notably, Ige also approved the lockdown of public parks, starting with this weekend. Only passage through to the beach for swimming and other water activities is allowed, and for good cause. Beaches have been magnets for large, uncontrolled gatherings, where the virus can spread easily.

The city is dead-serious about this, as it should be. Using federal CARES Act money, the Honolulu Police Department will deploy 160 officers on overtime to the work of enforcing all the rules.

Police Chief Susan Ballard said on Thursday that officers will not give warnings — nearly five months into this, we’ve all been warned — but will be issuing citations and making arrests.

Good. It appears that tough talk is the only thing that will break through hard heads.

Most people are observant of mask-wearing and distancing rules in the more-controlled environments. Those have been left alone in the crackdown, so far. Restaurants have been constraining customers, as have hair salons, retailers, churches and other institutions where admissions can be limited and oversight maintained.

That’s less practical at recreational sites, whether the recreation is physical or social. Bars already had been re-shuttered after a brief period of operations, because patrons tend to mingle more freely and create an ease of viral transmission.

The people who are flouting the rules are doing so for a variety of reasons, none of them justifiable. However, it would help to overcome a lingering misunderstanding of the disease for the public-health messaging to become more direct and blunt — even startling.

Think about the stark images of some of the anti-smoking and no-texting-while-driving ads. Changing bad practices can take a long time, but it starts with scaring people straight.

And the messages need to connect the dots for people who simply don’t understand. For younger people, they may not suffer the worst symptoms, but they can easily infect someone else who will.

Further, they may be hurt themselves more than they realize despite immediate recovery, through long-term effects such as lung damage that could follow them through life, when they may not be so young and healthy.

Hawaii doesn’t have much time to get back on course. Ballard said police will patrol and will respond to public complaints. Starting at 10 a.m. today, Oahu residents will be able to phone those in on an HPD hotline (723-3900).

They should call. If violations can be cut way back around the island, lives can be saved. It’s not about hitting people with a fine for its own sake; it’s about rapping them on the head to get their attention.

More reasons to correct this course? How about the many health-care providers who are being exposed to more and more of the virus? Most of us have a friend or loved one among them.

Those who are so cavalier about taking precautions should think about them. These are the ones we summon to help us, once it’s too late to correct our own foolishness.

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