Early last week, a forecast for COVID-19 cases estimated that Maui County was about two weeks behind Honolulu and Hawaii counties — but showing signs of acceleration in its approach toward the eye of the ongoing surge. The Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group (HiPAM) predicted that Maui’s daily count of new infections was poised to climb, peaking at 175 cases on Wednesday.
It’s alarming that Maui topped that mark early — recording 184 new cases on Friday when the state hit another frightening single-day high, with a total of 1,035 new cases. What’s encouraging, though, is that with even small public health gains, the forecast can brighten.
In mid-August, Monique Chyba, a University of Hawaii mathematics professor working with HiPAM, generated dire forecasts that showed daily coronavirus cases in Honolulu continuing to grow past 1,000 in September and reaching about 3,700 cases in early October — if factors such as the sluggish pace of vaccinations and then-level of mitigations held steady. They have not — and instead have increased, which affords a momentary sigh of relief.
Last Wednesday, as Oahu hospitals hovered at capacity limits, Mayor Rick Blangiardi canceled large gatherings — weddings, funerals, sporting events and the like for a four-week period, and limited small gatherings to groups of 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors. The move is a step in the right direction, but success hinges on whether residents and visitors comply with the directives.
Statewide, nearly 40% of Hawaii’s total population is not fully vaccinated, and, of course, that’s the bracket most threatened by the highly contagious delta variant. On the bright side, some 70% of residents have at least initiated the first shot, and the state is seeing a relatively high rate of follow-through, noted state Department of Heath (DOH) Director Libby Char.
Speaking on a recent Star-Advertiser “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast, Char said: “We are living through this as a community, and wherever you fall within that community, we are still one community. We need to band together. We need to all help each other out to get through this.”
That spot-on message was echoed at a Thursday news conference, during which Native Hawaiian leaders — health care professionals along with kumu hula, educators, public officials and politicians — urged the indigenous portion of the wider community to help stop the surge by wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and getting vaccinated.
Right now, Leeward residents are facing especially dangerous conditions. The Waianae Coast has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state, about 35%, which ranks it as one of the leaders in infections. And the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center has reported COVID-19 testing positivity rates in that area as high as 25%, compared with just over 8% for the entire state.
In response, the DOH is rightly expanding its roster of Waianae Coast testing and vaccination events through early October. Now, residents must swiftly heed the call to do their part. Regarding the best weapon for lowering hospitalization rates, which are increasing among patients in the 30s and 40s age groups, Char said: “It really is all about getting vaccinated. It’s very protective.”
Hanging in the balance are compelling public health reasons as well as economic health concerns.
With about one-quarter of all new daily cases in the pediatric population — children under age 12 — it’s imperative to behave responsibly to protect those little ones who can’t yet get vaccinated. And should already- straining hospitals and health care resources be pushed to their limits, Hawaii would be headed for another lockdown, which could involve monthlong stay-at-home, work-at-home directives. No one wants that — but it will take collective action today to beat back the need for any lockdown, and to ensure that the dire modeling forecasts don’t come true.