It’s not time to panic, but definitely time to worry.
The reason: The island’s COVID-19 new-infection tallies have persisted at the three-digit level for several days. Of the 134 cases tallied on Monday, 104 were reported on Oahu. If the running average of daily infection counts persists above 100 for two weeks, the city’s system of disease control will snap back to mandate closure of certain businesses and curtailment of many others.
Hawaii, Honolulu in particular, does not want to slip back to Tier 1, the most restrictive level of regulations for social and economic activity in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell has been pressing the public to curb social activities as residents head into the one-two punch of holidays, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s the potential blow to the small-business community he is weighing heavily, and rightly wants to avoid if at all possible.
The newest surge stems at least in part from the outbreak at the Halawa Correctional Facility. A week and a half ago, the mayor petitioned Gov. David Ige to allow the Oahu count to exclude new infections of the inmate population on the island.
At a media conference Monday, the governor indicated general agreement. So in his own conference, Caldwell said any decision to “snap back” to Tier 1 would not be based on the inmate infection count.
This is a reasonable position, provided there is careful monitoring of effects on hospital care capacity — something Caldwell said he would do. Assuming that the sick inmates can be adequately isolated and treated to avoid further spread to the community, the ability for businesses to operate safely should not be imperiled.
The challenge of managing this disease for people in close quarters — including prison populations but also nursing homes and public housing — has been immense over the past nine months of the pandemic.
The virus has been known to spread quickly once it gets into prisons.
In Michigan, for example, a prison in a remote location between Detroit and Canada had been kept relatively secure from the infections. However, infections spiked following the transfer of nine prisoners to the facility on Oct. 28.
If nothing else, this illustrates the dangers of viral transmission across the U.S. among inmates specifically — people who do not circulate in the wider community.
Recognizing that fact, Ige on Monday indicated he is considering Caldwell’s proposal, adding that “we generally agree” that the prisoners represent “isolated populations.”
Ige has correctly determined, however, that infections among prison staff, “because they are members of our community” and circulate in the general population when they are not working, should be counted as part of the tier assessment.
And when vaccines become available for those in high-risk congregate settings, inmates will need to be in that priority group as well.
Inmates are serving time for their offenses against society, but their sentences do not include disproportionate exposure to a potentially deadly virus; and taking these protective steps would reduce a similar risk to the prison staff and general public, as well as making it easier to manage the prison population.
Clearly, though, that step alone is not enough to insulate Hawaii from further infection spikes. The duty falls where it always has, on the residents of Oahu, who are responsible for keeping holiday gatherings tightly controlled.
If they do not, and infections soar out of control here as they have on the mainland, many more employers will bear the brunt of more losses through yet another closure — and many will not recover. That is no way to ensure a happy new year in 2021.