Hawaii Department of Health Director Libby Char warned that the state is in crisis as the highly contagious delta variant resulted in today’s record coronavirus cases and pleaded with residents to wear masks, socially distance, stay home as much as possible, and get vaccinated.
“We are on fire,” Char said during a news conference this morning with Gov. David Ige. “When we have hospitals that are really worried about being able to take care of people, that’s a crisis. When we see this exponential growth in the amount of people that are getting infected with COVID every day, 2,000 people in the past three days, that’s a crisis. And the point at which we overwhelm our resources, that is a disaster — and that is where we are headed and we are trying really hard not to get there.”
Char encouraged residents to have a plan ready in case if they or a family member contracts the virus, including having a place to isolate and having someone who can deliver groceries to the infected individual’s home.
State health officials today recorded 1,167 new confirmed and probable infections statewide, the highest single-day count since the start of the pandemic.
The state has averaged 729 new COVID-19 cases a day, over the past three days. By comparison, the state’s seven-day daily average just a month ago was 50 cases.
The dramatic rise has left hospitals scrambling to set up surge capacity and bring in hundreds of relief workers from the mainland to help exhausted health care workers.
Meanwhile, the state’s contact tracers, tasked with tracking down close contacts of an infected person to contain the spread, are overwhelmed.
Char said there is no way for the tracers to keep up. Instead, they will be contacting everyone who tests positive and giving them guidance.
“Please don’t yell or scream at us if we call you,” Char said. “And please share the information that we request. We are only trying to help you and your loves ones. We will probably ask you to help notify those with whom you have had close contacts.”
The state’s contact tracers have struggled throughout the pandemic to get everyone to cooperate with their efforts. Some residents never return calls, while others have been belligerent.
Char said that boosting free and accessible COVID-19 testing throughout the state is the Hawaii Department of Health’s top priority right now.
Ige also issued a stark warning about the rise in cases. “Friday the 13th has never been so frightening,” he said of today’s count of more than 1,000 infections statewide. “It is real; it is terrifying, and tragically, it is preventable.”
Still, the governor is holding off on implementing new restrictions on businesses and public activities, or reimposing testing requirements for travelers under the state’s Safe Travels program, hoping instead that residents will take precautions to control the spread.
“Our heroes in health care, on the front lines battling COVID, again are being asked to save us. It is unfair,” said Ige. “It is unfair because we all can save ourselves. Our behaviour can save us. the actions we take each and every day can make a difference in the battle against COVID.”
The latest Hawaii COVID-19 vaccine summary says 1,797,402 vaccine doses have been administered through state and federal distribution programs as of Thursday, up 5,171 from a day earlier. Health officials say that 61.2% of the state’s population is now fully vaccinated, and 68.9% have received at least one dose.
More than 90% of residents hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, state officials reported. In addition to urging more residents to get the vaccine, Ige said that vaccinated residents need to do more, including wearing masks, and avoiding crowds and social gatherings.
The vaccines have proven effective at preventing people from getting seriously ill, being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19. But they have proven less effective at preventing breakthrough infections of the delta variant, increasing the risk that vaccinated people can contribute to the spread of the virus.
The biggest spike in new cases has been among young people with lower vaccination rates. The daily reported cases among children has soared, from an average of 22 new cases a month ago to 155 new cases for the week beginning Aug. 1, according to state data. Children under 12 still aren’t eligible for a vaccine, while 63% of children ages 12 to 17 have received at least one shot and close to half are fully vaccinated.
Despite the steep rise in cases among children, Ige said schools would remain open.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said today that the governor needs to do more than request the public’s cooperation in order to combat the steep rise in cases.
He urged Ige to implement a health pass, in which people would have to show proof of full vaccination to enter businesses such as restaurants, gyms and stores. San Francisco on Thursday announced COVID-19 vaccination proof would be required at indoor venues.
“I am confident that Hawaii residents will support such a move because they want to protect their children, families and friends,” Saiki said in a statement immediately following the governor’s news conference with Char.
While the governor didn’t announce any new restrictions today, he has taken steps this month to try to dampen the surge.
On Tuesday, he restricted social gatherings to no more than 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors and ordered bars, restaurants, gyms, and other social establishments to limit their capacity by 50%. Patrons must remain seated, with 6 feet of distance maintained between parties, and cannot mingle. The state’s indoor mask mandate is also still in effect.
Ige also announced last week that all state and county government workers must be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. The mandate takes effect on Monday, though Ige said that the state’s draft policy is still being formulated and department heads are being asked to amend it to fit the needs of their employees.
Ige said that unvaccinated state workers will be allowed to opt for weekly testing and will not have to seek vaccine exemptions based on religious or medical reasons. By contrast, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said city workers will need to seek an exemption.