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Percentage of Hawaii travel-related COVID-19 cases up fourfold in November

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The percentage of travel-related COVID-19 cases in Hawaii have more than quadrupled since the state began allowing nonessential travel in October, according to new data released by the state Department of Health.

State health officials said Tuesday that 13% of Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases were travel-related in November, up from 3% in October.

Health officials reported 61 new coronavirus infections statewide Tuesday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 17,393 cases. No new deaths were recorded, and the state’s coronavirus death toll remains at 233, not including the first on-­island Kauai death, which was reported Monday. Of Hawaii’s total infection count, 1,313 cases are considered active.

The state has been closely monitoring travel-­associated cases since the state’s pre-travel testing program began Oct. 15. New data shows the positivity rate is up, though community spread is still responsible for the vast majority of cases.

“Even though we are seeing a noticeable increase in the number of travel-associated cases, it’s not having a major impact on our curve right now. It’s a trend worth watching, but right now the message is clear: It’s still community transmission,” said Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist. “It tends to be settings where we let our guard down that transmission is more likely to occur. We’re still mostly seeing transmission among households, small gatherings,” as well as workplace break and lunch rooms.

The state reported that travel-associated infections rose to 23% on Hawaii island, up from 3%, and 44% in Maui County from 6%. In Honolulu, travel-related cases climbed to 10% from 4%.

Kauai, however, has seen a larger spike in travel-related coronavirus infections since the start of the pre-travel testing program. The island had only reported 61 cases between March 1 and Oct. 14.

But Kauai’s total number of COVID-cases has jumped to 36 in November from six in October, when there was zero community spread. Travel-related cases represent 85% of new infections this month.

“Since the restart of travel on Oct. 15, we’ve nearly doubled the cases in that short amount of time,” Kawakami said. “There have been 58 cases; 48 of those cases are travel-related.”

Concerns about rising travel-related cases of COVID-19 have prompted Kauai Mayor Derek Kawa­kami to opt out of Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program.

The mayor is asking Gov. David Ige to approve an emergency rule to temporarily pause Kauai’s participation in the Safe Travels program as of Tuesday. That means all incoming island travelers — trans-Pacific and interisland— would be required to quarantine for 14 days regardless of testing.

After making his request, the Kauai District Health Office reported two new travel-related cases: an adult male who was notified of the positive result after arriving on island and an adult male resident who recently traveled.

“I need to take the wheel back for this period of time to navigate Kauai to a safer place. I do feel that there is danger approaching for Kauai, and I’m not going to just stand idly by and let it happen,” Kawakami told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Tuesday. “All I’m asking, as the mayor of Kauai, is I need to be able to steer the ship in what I think is the right direction because I don’t think anybody can speak on Kauai’s behalf and knows Kauai better than I do — as far as the shot callers in this operation are concerned — and that goes for Gov. Ige, Lt. Gov. Green and, of course, all of the mayors are on board with that frame of thinking.”

Kawakami said that temporarily opting out of the Safe Travels program would allow the island to remain in that county’s Tier 4 — the least restrictive tier — for as long as possible.

“I don’t have the health care capacity that the other islands have. We have the smallest number of ICU beds, nine, and about 72,000 people (are) just residents,” he said. “On a normal day, oftentimes those beds are filled just with normal people, not even COVID-­related.”

Kauai resident Steve O’Neal, who formerly worked for the United Nations Disaster Response Team, said in an email that travelers are the primary “patient zeros” on the island with no prior community spread.

“It is true the infected travelers are overall less impactful on Oahu with entrenched community spread and 89% of the active cases, but the Safe Travels program has been injecting community spread into Oahu and the neighbor islands for certain,” he said.

“Family gatherings over the holidays have the potential to add gasoline to the fire, reducing the doubling time and causing case numbers to rise even more quickly,” O’Neal added. “We are entering what is by far the most challenging period that Kauai has faced since the pandemic began. If something is to be done, the time for action is now.”

Star-Advertiser staff writer Allison Schaefers contributed to this report.

Correction: State health officials said Tuesday that 13% of Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases were travel-related in November, up from 3% in October. An earlier version of this story and the headline erroneously reported that 13% of travelers to Hawaii tested positive for COVID-19 in November.
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