Hawaii’s tourism industry has the unique, time-sensitive opportunity to help the state contain the spread of COVID-19.

Hawaii is at a disadvantage in resources compared to many places, but we do have a superabundance of unused hotel rooms at present. These are sunk costs for the hotels, but they are worth gold to doctors and epidemiologists.

There are two ways in which the state can mobilize these rooms — and the staff that service them — to help control the epidemic locally.

First, we know from the experience of other countries that doctors, nurses, and EMS technicians are infected at a high rate. That leads to secondary spread among their families at home. Getting frontline health care workers out of their houses is an urgent priority to knock down the epidemic.

Recent news that hotels are being made available for frontline workers (Hotels for Heroes) is a great start! Each island, as well as remote communities like Hana should designate at least one such hotel where physicians, nurses, and first responders can reside while doing frontline medical work with coronavirus patients.

Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Waikiki
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel is a Waikiki icon. Visitor lodging facilities can be used to house medical personnel and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Second, we should establish an “attentive care hotel” for asymptomatic and mildly ill patients. Hawaii leads the nation in multigenerational housing, and we are already seeing patients who acquired the virus at home.

National and international guidelines stress the need to isolate in a private bedroom and bathroom. For many families in Hawaii that is not possible.

When patients are newly diagnosed, health officials should trace their contacts, and critically, evaluate their home situation. Those who wish to stay home while ill should do so.

Attentive Care Hotels

But people who have legitimate reasons to worry they will infect a family member should be offered a room. With their own place to sleep and shower, the risk of secondary transmission in our community will drop.

The objection to attentive care hotel is that it would cause stigma for the hotel industry, but the opposite is true. The industry will suffer a far greater stigma if it doesn’t help people while rooms sit empty and Hawaii residents infect each other in overcrowded housing.

We know how to clean rooms where patients have stayed, and the virus does not survive long in the environment. A hotel that serves this function would require professional cleaning after a patient returns home, but it could return to normal business within days of the epidemic ending. FEMA funding can be made available to assist the quarantine effort, reimburse the hotel, and pay workers.

In previous times of crisis, Hawaii’s hotels participated in the common effort.

During World War II, the Royal Hawaiian was used by American troops. Even President Roosevelt famously stayed in Waikiki during meetings with his Pacific commanders in July 1944. During the current epidemic, New York and San Francisco have mobilized their hotels to serve as quarantine facilities.

There’s sound precedent — in history and in the present — for turning a tourist post into a command post and mobilizing the service industry to serve a higher cause.

Failing to act early will bring us a higher body count.

In every model of this epidemic, the critical element that determines how many people die is the transmissibility of the virus. Anything we can do as a community to reduce transmission will have an outsized impact on lives saved. Failing to act early will bring us a higher body count.

We also know the American approach on transmission has failed so far. The CDC’s centralized testing for the virus was so delayed that the epidemic took root unseen.

We have been slow to implement aggressive contact tracing, adopt protective equipment like masks in public, and develop an effective system of quarantine. In contrast, countries in East Asia have implemented all these policies and are now fighting an epidemic that’s an order of magnitude smaller than ours.

The good news is that it’s not too late for Hawaii to avoid the large epidemic plaguing the mainland, and our tourism industry is uniquely situated to help in that effort. It can do that by joining the governor’s pandemic response team and making hotels one of our most effective assets against the virus.

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