Lt. Gov. Josh Green on Thursday called for Hawaii residents to avoid all social gatherings for two weeks, immediately, as the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases hit a record high for the new year.
Hawaii had 322 new coronavirus infections reported Thursday, the highest since mid-August when the number spiked to 355.
The latest surge is due primarily to holiday gatherings — small and large — that ran from Christmas to New Year’s weekend, Green said.
“What we have seen the last several weeks, we’ve seen the clusters emerge from social gatherings, and they’ve not been connected to travel almost at all,” Green told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “I’m personally calling for a two-week pause on all social gatherings as we ramp up the vaccination program. It does not affect our tier system; it does not affect shopping or retail. But we would benefit from a two-week pause.”
The new cases included 213 on Oahu, 56 on Maui, 18 on Hawaii island, one on Kauai and 34 residents diagnosed out of state.
The report reflects cases mostly from Tuesday, but 30 of the 322 new cases were backdated from Dec. 20 through Tuesday due to a reporting lag from a laboratory, health officials said.
The COVID-19 infection rate has been on the rise since Christmas, and it has put pressure on hospitals.
The hospitalization rate has increased 77% over the last two weeks, Green said.
In the Health Department’s latest cluster report, officials expressed concerns over Hawaii’s correctional and detention facilities, which have been identified as high-risk settings for the transmission of COVID-19.
Last year there were 1,412 COVID-19 cases associated with four clusters at three facilities on Oahu. Most were among inmates, but employees, household members and other close contacts were affected, too.
Two of those clusters, involving 562 cases, remained active Thursday.
Smaller clusters for Oahu were reported in the food supplier, restaurant, construction and industrial and other occupational settings categories. Another cluster, involving 27 cases, was reported from a social gathering.
“It is mostly social gathering-driven,” said Green. “I want to say this openly: I understand the need people had at the end of the year to see loved ones and see people from work. But that has created a significant bump up in cases. … We need a quiet two weeks to bring our numbers down. If we do that, we’ll see our numbers drop quickly.”
On Maui a cluster involving at least 75 cases has broken out at Harbor Lights Condominium in Kahului, which might be linked to a holiday choir practice, officials said at a news conference earlier this week.
Maui officials said the 56 new cases reported Thursday were believed to have stemmed from holiday gatherings.
Maui Mayor Michael Victorino said in a news release that the number was concerning but not unexpected.
“Our medical advisers anticipated a dramatic surge in cases after the holidays,” he said in a news release. “We are watching the numbers very carefully, but we do hope to see a downward trend later this month. In the meantime, we are enforcing existing public health rules and working with Gov. (David) Ige to institute some new restrictions.”
Victorino has approved additional funding for Maui Police Department officers to increase enforcement of public-health guidelines, including mask-wearing and social-gathering limits, currently limited to five.
Maui County also delivered 10,000 gloves, 4,000 masks, 100 face shields, hundreds of hand sanitizers, disinfectant cleaning solutions and four infrared thermometers to Harbor Lights to help contain that cluster, officials said.
On Oahu, meanwhile, the seven-day positivity rate has jumped from 3.5% on Dec. 31 to 4.5% on Thursday. The seven-day average on Thursday remained in the triple digits at 102. The Thursday statistics included inmates.
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Oahu would remain in Tier 2 and that he would discuss his ideas for reopening the economy at a news conference next week.
“The health and safety of everyone here on Oahu is our number one priority,” Blangiardi said. “While today’s bump in cases is concerning, I’m confident that we will be able to move forward in a way that is calculated and based on science. A surge in cases was anticipated by our health experts following the holiday season but it’s what we do now that will determine how devastating an impact this will have on our island in the weeks and months to come.”
Green said Oahu’s seven-day positivity rate is closing in on 5%, the point at which shutdowns are recommended, and he hopes the island does not get there.
“That’s why I have an urgent call for people to put a pause on social gatherings,” he said. “I think that if people take it to heart, two weeks after, we’ll see very reasonable numbers again.”
Besides refraining from gathering, Green said people should also continue to wear face masks and follow physical distancing guidelines. He said plans to vaccinate seniors 75 and older, along with front-line, essential workers, are expected to ramp up beginning in mid-January.
State health officials are now posting the number of vaccinations administered statewide on Hawaii’s COVID-19 dashboard. As of 11:59 p.m. Saturday the department said 25,470 individuals had been vaccinated: 17,991 in Honolulu County, 3,013 in Maui County, 2,526 in Hawaii County and 1,940 in Kauai County.
The vaccination data will be updated at noon every Wednesday.