Fifty-five new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed by state health officials on Thursday, along with another COVID-19 related fatality. It is the highest number of COVID-19 infections verified by state officials in one day to date.

Nearly all cases were on Oahu. Three cases were verified by officials on the Big Island and two infections were confirmed on Maui. An elderly woman on Oahu was the 26th person officials say who died of possible COVID-19 related complications.

The news of a record increase comes as a major Category 3 hurricane strengthens in its path toward the Hawaiian islands.

The Hawaii Department of Health has tracked COVID-19 cases since late February, and the first infection was confirmed in March. The first wave of cases reached its peak in April, and a lull in the number of new infections lasted through much of May. New diagnoses began to pick up in June again.

The number of cases announced each day fluctuates and reflects when test results are reported to DOH by local laboratories, not necessarily when people started feeling symptoms or caught the virus.

A daily average of about 26 new infections has been confirmed during the past week. The previous record for the highest daily case count was on July 11, with 42 cases.

More Cases and Deaths Are Likely

Hawaii can expect to see more upticks in case counts and fatalities will likely increase in tandem, officials said. DOH Director Bruce Anderson said if the prevalence of the COVID-19 disease continues to grow, state officials may consider re-implementing restrictions and even revisit plans to open schools.

“It may be a situation where instead of all schools together, we could more strategically open schools in areas with fewer cases in communities for example with low prevalence of infection,”
Anderson said at a press conference. “We’re going to carefully look at the situation going forward.”

Most infections have occurred among people who have socialized without wearing face coverings or distancing themselves properly, health officials said.  The department is investigating many clusters within households, but officials would not say how many.

Some of Hawaii’s recent large clusters were found to be tied to one person who attended a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant training and also attended exercise classes at two separate gyms.

When asked why they would not name the gyms, department officials said it is their general policy to not disclose the names or locations of businesses that have been affected by COVID-19, but rather, let the business owners themselves announce.

In the case of the two Oahu gyms, DOH’s contact tracers had enough information to link infections and track down people who were exposed, Park said.

“There is no need to publicize the name to the community because there is no risk to the community,” she said. “When there is a risk to the community that’s when we will publicize.”

Travel To Oahu ‘Becoming A Risk’

Just three of Thursday’s 55 cases were travel related. Some of the clusters of infection have been among essential workers who received exemptions to Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine rule, Anderson said.

“It’s significant that the spread of disease is less on neighboring islands,” he said. “It’s on Oahu where we’re seeing cases most often without any evidence of travel or exposure to those who have traveled, suggesting there is more widespread illness occurring on Oahu.”

Department of Health Edpidemiologist Sarah Park sits socially distanced from DOH Director Dr. Bruce Anderson during COVID-19 press conference announcing a spike of 41 new cases. July 7, 2020

Hawaii State Epidemiologist Dr.  Sarah Park and Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson said Thursday that Hawaii can expect to see more spikes in the daily case count going forward, and urged people to physically distance, even from family members if they don’t reside in the same household.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Still, the health department’s random surveillance of specimens collected from people with respiratory symptoms is indicating that there is “low level of virus circulation” on Maui and possibly on Hawaii Island, according to Park. Traveling to Oahu from neighbor islands is “becoming a risk,” she said.

Testing Capacity Still Depends On Supply

Anderson said the state is reevaluating the metrics and data it gathers. Officials plan to look more closely at real-time personal protective equipment supply, and the percentage of positive test results that come in weekly.

About 1% of tests conducted in Hawaii have come up with positive COVID-19 results, and that percentage is creeping up toward 2%, Anderson said.

In other states considered to have severe outbreaks, positive test results account for closer to 12 to 14% of all tests conducted, he said.

As a collective, laboratories across the state can test as many as 5,000 people per day, but if that kind of testing activity was sustained for a long period, Hawaii could run out of supplies.

Laboratories continue to be affected by the worsening pandemic in other states, which has changed testing equipment and chemical supply chains.

“We are not in the same predicament that unfortunately our neighbors are on the mainland,” Park said. “My colleagues in other states say they can’t even get tests done that they ended to to pursue their investigations … Hawaii is not in that state right now because we’ve been good at working collaboratively to make sure we perform strategic testing so the lights won’t go out on us.”

Civil Beat tracks COVID-19 cases along with other key data in our virus tracker, which is updated daily at noon.

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