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COVID-19 committee says case data needed to slow Hawaii’s coronavirus surge

Members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 voiced their frustrations Monday with the state Department of Health’s response to the pandemic.

The committee pushed the DOH to provide more information on new coronavirus cases, which would help residents know what activities should be avoided.

In a letter dated Aug. 6 to Health Director Bruce Anderson, House Speaker Scott Saiki, who co-chairs the House COVID-19 committee, asked Anderson for more specific data on COVID-19 cases so the public knows what behavior is risky.

“As COVlD-19 cases increase, it is equally important that the general public be made aware of the circumstances behind the caseloads,” Saiki wrote. “We are not requesting that an individual’s personal health information be disclosed. Rather, DOH must provide sufficient data that enables the general public to make sound decisions regarding personal and community health and safety.”

Saiki asked for information on the date and location of transmission; type of activity or event where the transmission occurred; whether the infected individual may have infected others; whether the infected individual was masked or unmasked; whether the infected individual was symptomatic or asymptomatic.

In the letter, Saiki asked Anderson to respond by last Friday. Saiki received a response on Sunday from Danette Wong Tomiyasu, the Health Department’s deputy director for Health Resources, that read in part: “We also are in the process of determining how better to publicly provide additional details about transmission events, without violating privacy or health information protections, to give the public a deeper appreciation for the breadth and depth of risk currently posed to our residents and visitors, particularly on Oahu. Your suggestions are part of this process.”

Tomiyasu did not say when additional details about COVID-19 cases would be made public.

Saiki said, “The narrative could be very simple, e.g., the asymptomatic, unmasked individual attended a graduation party at Lanikai Beach on Memorial Day with approximately 25 other unmasked individuals, 12 of whom subsequently tested positive possibly as a result of attending the event.” He said, “The information is meant to assist members of the public in understanding that their behavior will dictate whether we can overcome COVlD-19.”

Committee member Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of HMSA, said there is no useful data on whether clusters are a result of house parties, weddings or bars, for example.

“One of the challenges is as fundamental as what it is we’re supposed to be doing … and the consequences of not doing it,” said committee co-chairman Peter Ho, who is also chairman, president and CEO of Bank of Hawaii.

“From where we were early on in the pandemic to becoming one of the best stories in the country infection wise to where we are now is not a pretty story,” Ho said. “We have to learn from our mistakes to figure out how to get better.”

Saiki pointed to the information reported to the public by health officials in Springfield, Mo., as a model of how Hawaii could better inform residents.

On Aug. 8, for example, Missouri health officials warned more than 300 people of potential COVID-19 exposure by a single, unnamed individual who was exercising over five separate days while providing the times of each workout but not even the patient’s gender.

“The person potentially exposed more than 300 people at the Dan Kinney Family Center at 2701 S. Blackman Rd. over the course of several days,” Missouri health officials posted on their web site. “The individual wore a mask while entering and exiting the building but was not masked while working out. … This exposure is considered high-risk due to the number of people that may have been exposed and the length of time the individual was at the facility.”

Officials with Hawaii’s Health Department did not immediately respond to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday about its correspondence with Saiki, how much more specific information it plans to provide and when.

In her letter to Saiki, Tomiyasu said: “Regarding transparency and information sharing with the public, the Department is preparing a new data dashboard, which will share metrics about disease prevention, detection, containment, and health care capacity.”

Members of the House COVID-19 committee on Monday repeatedly linked Hawaii’s latest surge with frustrations and an inability to re-start the economy.

“The virus is the economy,” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and a member of the House committee. “The public health side of this is what drives the economy.”

Bonham joined other committee members in saying that the public needs specific recommendations on how to curb COVID-19 cases.

Saiki suggested that the House committee take on a more “oversight role” in responding to the pandemic.

And some neighbor island members said they hoped there can be neighbor island exceptions to help their local economies, since the largest numbers are on Oahu.

Wendy Laros, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, wondered why neighbor island residents can’t bypass Oahu and travel between neighbor islands, to stimulate each other’s economies.

“Why can’t we fly from here (Kona) to Maui or here to Kauai and from Kauai to here?” Laros asked. “I hope that gets considered. … What’s going on on Oahu is really affecting all of us.”

Ho and others said there is much more to be done to get on top of the latest surge in cases and give clearer guidelines to stop the spread and to re-start Hawaii’s economy.

Otherwise the long-term effects could be disastrous, Ho suggested.

“If we’re one of the communities that’s having a difficult time getting ourselves back under control, that’s going to prevent us from getting our economy going again,” Ho said. “And capital and people are highly portable and so we will lose capital in the form of small businesses shuttering. We’ll lose people who simply — despite the fact that they love the islands as much as we all do — will not be able to afford living here and will end up in places that have gotten a better control of the virus than we have.”

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