About 2% of respondents to a new Hawaii survey say they are living in households where someone has COVID-19 or its symptoms. And 3% said they kept attending social gatherings even after Hawaii’s March 25 stay-at-home order.

Those are just a couple of the findings so far in an ongoing study that seeks to learn more about how people are getting the coronavirus and how it spreads.

The survey by Pacific Urban Resilience Lab at the University of Hawaii includes 11,000 responses gathered during the last week of March. Karl Kim, an urban planning professor at the university and the lab’s director, said he conducted the survey in partnership with the Hawaii Data Collaborative and other organizations.

The confidential survey doesn’t collect names, but it does ask respondents to provide the street names of the intersections closest to their homes, Kim said. The idea is that the survey data might provide decision-makers with more information about where infected people and vulnerable groups may be living in light of limited COVID-19 testing in Hawaii.

More data about the virus and its spread is particularly necessary given Hawaii’s limited medical infrastructure, Kim said.

“It’s not like we’re on the continent where we can drive three hours and get to a hospital. We have very, very limited capacity to respond to a pandemic particularly given our location and given the fact that many other places are experiencing such high demand,” he said.

A graph of Hawaii COVID-19 confirmed cases looms behind Gov. David Ige during an April 3, 2020 press conference. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Although only 2% of participants said they lived with someone who has the virus or its symptoms, nearly a fourth of respondents reported health issues that could be related to the virus, such as fevers or coughs.

In response to that finding, the state Department of Health said in an email Sunday that other respiratory illnesses are circulating in Hawaii and have similar symptoms to COVID-19.

“Testing to date also supports this in that only (about) 2.6% of those with respiratory symptoms and tested, have been positive for COVID-19,” the agency wrote, adding that they’re reaching out to Kim about potentially collaborating with him.

“All respiratory pathogens cause often similar symptoms, so assuming persons presenting with fever and/or cough or other respiratory symptoms must have COVID-19 would be misleading and incorrect.”

The survey also found 31% of respondents said they left their home to go to the drug store or buy groceries, the most common reason people left their houses.

About 3% of respondents said they continued attending social gatherings after Hawaii’s March 25 stay-at-home order. The same percentage said they returned from a trip within the last 14 days. The state Department of Health has previously said that more than 80% of Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases have been associated with travel by returning residents.

Public and private laboratories in Hawaii, including this drive-thru site in Kakaako, tested 13,536 people for the coronavirus as of Sunday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The survey also gathered information about households that may be more susceptible to COVID-19 than others. One-fourth of respondents said they have a chronic medical condition and 17% said their household includes someone older than 65.

“I study hurricanes and volcanoes and tsunamis — catastrophic events that impact one place. But with a global pandemic, resources throughout the world are all being taxed. That’s why this is important,” Kim said. “We’ve got to have good data. Without data, it’s hard to make priorities. Without priorities, it’s hard to encourage collective social action.”

Still, at this point the results are considered preliminary in part because researchers are still analyzing potential biases. While Kim was pleased that 11,000 filled out the survey in just one week, he said the responses are biased toward people with access to computers and those within particular social networks.

“Other vulnerable populations that are having to deal with many, many other stressors in their lives don’t have the time, the assets, the resources to fill out a questionnaire,” Kim said.

That’s why Tim Brown, a senior fellow at the East-West Center who specializes in infectious disease and behavioral epidemiology, cautions against inferring too much from these initial results.

“You certainly don’t want to over-interpret it and assume that it’s representative of what’s going on in the community,” he said.

Still, given the dearth of data about COVID-19 in Hawaii right now, “Any information is useful at this point,” he said.

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