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Editorial: State falls short on data, transparency

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Oahu’s metrics are going up, but not the ones anyone wants to see. Hawaii’s counts of new COVID-19 cases have been on the rise for weeks, followed by a jump in hospital admissions for the disease as well.

And where economic health is concerned, there’s also an increase in the number of businesses on the brink of shutting down permanently, said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

All of these things are linked, but too many people in the community have been unable, or unwilling, to connect the dots. Bonham seemed happy to do so.

“If you want to go to the beach and have a party, don’t expect to find a job when you get home,” he said.

Bonham and other members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 convened online on Monday to assess the recent developments in how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the state.

Committee members Mark Mugiishi and Raymond Vara, respectively the president and CEO of Hawaii Medical Service Association and Hawaii Pacific Health, agreed that they don’t have the data in hand that would inform the next steps in regaining control of the virus.

But Bonham said the Health Department has data about hot spots, but hasn’t compiled it and released it. That’s an information gap that must be closed.

The takeaway message from that meeting comprised dire warnings that demand a rapid response from the state’s elected leaders, especially those on Oahu where the disease spread has slipped out of control.

>> Tougher, targeted restrictions on gatherings in enclosed spaces are necessary.

The most recent crackdown, primarily bans of uncontrolled social gatherings, may be having some effect: Monday’s count had dipped to 174. That’s better than the highs topping 300 over the past week. But the status quo may not lower the rate of infections quickly enough to manage the burden on hospitals.

>> The “sledgehammer” approach of a tight stay-at-home order likely would kill some businesses that aren’t contributing to the problem. The data about where clusters are would help in shaping new rules more strategically; it must be made public to garner more public compliance.

>> Strong leadership and focused messaging on the reasons for taking action — and the consequences of inaction — will be essential to driving infection levels downward.

This starts at the top, with Gov. David Ige, who is often short on details even when asked a direct question.

He should start by providing clear status reports on efforts to boost contact tracing and the number of tests. Neither of these capacities are where they need to be, if the goal is readiness for the resumption of tourism in September, or even October.

Granted, the most important aim is lowering the amount of virus so that contact tracers have better odds of reaching a high percentage of those exposed to an infected person.

But increasing testing and contact tracing will help the state accrue better data, identifying activities and conditions that allow for easier spread of the disease.

Communication also means a wider campaign through traditional and social media channels with pointed messages about the pandemic and its effects.

Vara said his company has started a hotline for questions, and it has been swamped with staffers wanting to know what to do and what to avoid. The same hunger for information is everywhere, he added.

“Half the population is scared because they don’t know what’s going on,” Vara said. “The other half is not scared enough because they don’t know what’s going on.”

That’s absolutely right — and government and community leadership have got to fill in the blanks for them.

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