The Leeward coast of Oahu is in crisis mode, with some of the highest coronavirus case counts on the island, which continue rising and spreading like wildfire among household members.
“We really are facing quite a disaster, a crisis, right now on the Leeward side,” said Jake Schafer, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center director of infection control and employee health.
The Leeward coast is facing a “perfect storm” of pandemic fatigue resulting in people letting down their guard, combined with the highly transmissible delta variant and a low vaccination rate, Schafer said during a recent virtual talk-story with the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce.
Oahu’s highest case counts in the past 14 days have consistently been in ZIP code 96792, which includes Nanakuli and Waianae. On Sunday the state’s COVID-19 dashboard counted 802 cases in the 96792 ZIP code over the past 14 days, which brought the total there to 3,820 cases since the start of the pandemic.
At the same time, the area’s vaccination rate is among the isle’s lowest, with only 35% or less of the population fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Despite efforts, that rate has not changed much since June.
Nearly 1 in every 3 people tested positive at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center recently.
Pat McKenzie, who oversees contact tracing for the center, has witnessed the heartbreaking impact of the coronavirus on many families since around the Fourth of July.
“We lifted restrictions, we had the vaccine,” said McKenzie, also a nurse practitioner and the center’s senior director of clinical initiatives and response. “While the vaccine uptake was slow, it was coming along — vaccinated or not — we thought things are going to get back to normal. Then the COVID was like, OK, people let me change just enough to infect more people and a lot quicker, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Among those getting infected on the Leeward coast are large and multigenerational families.
She recently had to contact a family of 10, for instance, including several adults and a few toddlers. When they share the same home, keeping those who are sick isolated from others can prove challenging.
One of the first things that contact tracers ask is whether someone can isolate completely away from family members, and with some luck there may be a separate bedroom available. However, many people do not have the luxury of having more than one bathroom, she said.
In that case, that person infected with COVID will have to warn everyone in the home — by cellphone, for instance — that they are going to emerge from their room to use the bathroom. Everyone else should clear the home or put on a mask, she said.
The sick person, also masked, should disinfect everything in the bathroom afterward.
“You really have to think through how to do this,” she said. “It’s really hard with kids. I really feel for young couples with kids.”
Without state-provided isolation rooms readily available, families have had to do the best they can, she said.
There can also be a domino effect on the entire family.
The person infected with COVID-19 has to isolate at least 10 days, depending on their symptoms, but if another family member picks up the virus on day nine, for example, then the entire family starts another isolation cycle of 10 days.
Some families have been in quarantine for 20 days or more, which is a hardship for those who are working.
Waianae Coast public schools sought help from the state Department of Education to help with staff shortages as they isolate or quarantine after potential exposure in the midst of the COVID-19 surge.
In an effort to help, the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce is working with Leeward side businesses to offer more education and vaccination clinics, with three scheduled at Campbell Industrial park and more to follow.
The state Health Department is also rolling out more testing and vaccination efforts in West Oahu to respond to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the community.
The first mobile clinic offering COVID-19 tests and vaccines was held Saturday at Waianae Mall. Clinics will be held every Saturday through Oct. 2 and rotate among the mall, Nanakuli Villages Mall and Nanakuli Intermediate & High School.
State Rep. Cedric Gates (D, Waianae-Makaha-Makua) said the Leeward community, which has often been neglected by a town-centric government, needs more resources.
“I think what has been going on in our community is an issue of mistrust with government and miscommunication,” he said, “and just misinformation in general being spread through the masses, through social media and these different platforms.”
Many have been susceptible to their Instagram or Facebook feeds, or what they heard from their cousin’s cousin, he said.
Officials need to take a more focused approach to addressing concerns in the community, he said, which is made up of many Native Hawaiians and blue-collar workers working on the front lines to pay their bills. They also need to address socioeconomic and health disparities that existed for years prior to the pandemic, which are now magnified.
Gates does not support vaccine mandates, saying it’s important for people “to come to the decision on their own,” but says they also need to understand the severity of COVID-19. Many are starting to as their friends and family get sick.
“People are now saying, hey, my auntie, my cousin, my uncle, is suffering from COVID; he’s in the hospital now,” he said. “That’s also pushing the vaccine-hesitant group of people to consider getting vaccinated.”
Schafer said for the unvaccinated it’s a matter of when, not if, one gets infected with the delta variant.
The Waianae health center’s emergency room has been swamped with sick COVID-19 patients, including those in their 20s and 30s who had to be intubated.
“We don’t have an in-bed facility here,” said Schafer. “We stabilize them and ship them off to a place that can take them. We’re having to call every place and beg for a bed — Queen’s, Kaiser, Pali Momi, Castle. There are not many beds available, and it takes a long time to find one for these folks.”
For McKenzie, who has been part of the community for 30 years, contact tracing has included many familiar names.
She and a team of about a dozen contact tracers have been putting in 12-hour days, calling those who test positive to offer advice and resources, and to help prevent the spread of more infections.
Many initially thought their symptoms were just allergies, a cold, or a headache after a long day at work, she said.
Some are difficult to reach and some will argue. There have been rare occasions where a COVID-19- positive person answered the phone while walking around a grocery store and needed to be told to go home immediately.
In another instance a contact tracer called an ambulance for someone exhibiting serious symptoms and in need of medical help.
Some of the people she calls express regrets about not getting vaccinated, she said, especially if they are very sick or have lost someone close. People seem to have a higher comfort level with vaccinations now that Pfizer has received full federal approval.
“I think what people need to do is ask, Where are you right now, today?” she said. “If you’re not positive, get the vaccine, or if you’re worried about it, call us and get your questions answered for sure.”
The Waianae community she knows looks out for one another, she said.
“In this community everybody knows everybody else,” she said. “You may have differences, but when the bottom line comes, they usually stand together. I honestly think people are looking toward the greater good and will come together in this crisis.”
UPCOMING COVID TESTING AND VACCINE CLINICS ON THE LEEWARD COAST
>> 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Nanakuli Villages Mall (first shot)
>> 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Sept. 18, Nanakuli Intermediate & High School (second shot)
>> 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sept. 25, Waianae Mall (second shot)
>> 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 2, Nanakuli Villages Mall (second shot)
Source: State Department of Health
FREE COVID VACCINE SHOTS
The Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center offers free COVID-19 vaccine shots at six locations including its main campus at 86-260 Farrington Highway and clinics in Nanakuli, Kapolei and Waipahu.
>> Call 427-3659 to schedule an appointment.
>> Visit wcchc.com for more information.