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Hawaii State Health Department report highlights COVID clusters at 2 neighbor island schools

The Hawaii Department of Health’s cluster report this week focuses on outbreaks in educational settings, which it says it is prioritizing, along with health care facilities and congregate settings like correctional facilities.

The report focuses on two clusters that took place at schools last month —one at an independent school on Kauai and the other at a public elementary school on Maui.

The state Health Department said parents and the community have been concerned about the return to in-person learning and risk of COVID-19 in schools, and that its guidance provides a layered approach with four core strategies to protect students and staff.

These strategies include the vaccination of eligible students and staff, asking people to stay home or go home if sick, correct and consistent mask use indoors, and good hand hygiene.

“With high community transmission, cases among students and staff are expected.” said officials in the report. “However, implementation of the core essential strategies will substantially reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools.”

Since July 1 of this year, the DOE has recorded a total of 2,917 cases of COVID-19 associated with school campuses. Numbers spiked in August, but appear to be on a downward trend, so far, this month.

Distancing between public school students, however, is no longer a key piece of DOE’s plan to keep them from contracting the coronavirus, according to a recent Star-Advertiser story, and some are now less than 3 feet apart in classes,

The Hawaii State Teachers Union has demanded negotiations with the state Department of Education over working conditions and the safety of employees and students during the pandemic.

Health officials said the two schools with clusters did not follow the four core strategies.

On Kauai, officials said a cluster of 45 coronavirus cases occurred at an independent school where these strategies were inconsistently implemented — particularly mask wearing.

The outbreak started with 27 COVID cases among students and staff across several grade levels that then resulted in 18 secondary cases.

Other strategies, such as cohorting, improving ventilation, physical distancing and screening testing, had not been implemented, officials said.

The school paused in-person learning during the quarantine period to implement these strategies and other mitigation measures. Since reopening with these in place, there has been no evidence of COVID transmission, they said.

On Maui last month, a cluster at a public elementary school resulted in 26 coronavirus cases. Nearly all of them, 23, were exposed to the virus outside of the school setting, mostly by household members, officials said.

”The household members with COVID-19 were primarily exposed during summer camps, at the workplace, or during activities at places of worship,” said the report.

Fourteen of the 26 cases were on campus during their infectious period, and 56 their close contacts were quickly identified, notified, and sent home to quarantine. Out of the 56, three students ended up testing positive for COVID.

The school reported 60% of its staff was vaccinated, but students were younger than 12, and therefore, not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. There were no hospitalizations or deaths.

“The findings from this school cluster investigation demonstrate that when mitigation measures are implemented and enforced COVID-19 spread can be reduced or prevented to safely facilitate in-person learning,” officials said in the report.

What families need to be aware of is that those infected do not always have classic COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, cough, difficulty breathing, or loss of taste or smell. Symptoms can be mild, and include fatigue, headaches or body aches, sore throat, or a runny nose.

People with COVID can also be infectious without symptoms, officials said.

Health officials are currently investigating 56 clusters involving more than 1,000 coronavirus cases in all four major counties of Hawaii. Correctional facilities continue to be a source of clusters for Kauai, Oahu, and Hawaii island.

>> On Oahu, officials are investigating a cluster at a correctional facility involving 298 cases, five clusters involving food suppliers with 91 cases, and eight clusters among restaurants with 87 cases, among others.

>> On Maui County, officials are investigating 11 educational setting clusters with 134 cases, 11 clusters in the travel, lodging and tourism category with 162 cases, two clusters among food suppliers with 27 cases, and three construction/industrial setting clusters with 32 cases, among others.

>> On Hawaii County, only one cluster with 309 cases at a correctional facility is under investigation.

>> On Kauai County, officials are investigating two clusters at places of worship with 25 cases, two from occupational settings with 12 cases, and one at a correctional facility with 95 cases.

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