The Hawaii House committee addressing the state’s response to COVID-19 is calling for state health officials to release more detailed information about how the illness is being spread.

More granular information on what activities pose the most risk is critical to keep the economy going as cases surge and the public modifies its behavior in response, members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness said on Monday.

State health officials reported 207 new cases of the virus on Monday and attributed the high number to a delay in results from a private lab. Health officials reported 45 new cases on Sunday, along with a disclaimer from the health department that Sunday’s results were artificially low.

Speaker of the House Scott Saiki speaks about preparations in the budget for Coronavirus.
House Speaker Scott Saiki wants the Department of Health to release more details about the spread of COVID-19 to inform the public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

About 114 of today’s cases were from the weekend backlog, the department said.

Still, with cases generally rising, Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization who’s also a member of the committee, said it’s key to let people know what things are safer to do – and what’s not safe – in order to keep certain economic sectors and activities going.

For example, Bonham said, if it’s relatively safe to shop at a grocery store wearing a mask, people need to know that so they keep shopping. Conversely, if the virus is being spread at bars or large beach gatherings, the public needs to know so people can refrain from doing that.

Without more detailed information, people might engage in little economic activity – even relatively safe things — for the sake of safety.

“Providing that information is crucial,” Bonham said.

Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki, who co-chairs the committee, said being able to categorize cases – saying how many new cases came from bars, for instance – could give the public a sense of what not to do while still protecting the privacy of individuals.

Likewise, Saiki said, it would be useful to know how many cases came from people visiting Hawaii versus, say, residents returning from a trip to Las Vegas.

It could also give government officials an idea of what activities to limit and what to allow, rather than imposing a sweeping stay-at-home order like the one that effectively shut down the economy in the spring.

Sheraton Waikiki with view thru chainlink fence at the lobby area during COVID-19 pandemic. July 23, 2020
Major hotels like the Sheraton Waikiki are suffering as the COVID-19 crisis devastates tourism. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

But Saiki said the Department of Health won’t share the information.

“The response was that the information was confidential, but I don’t think that’s a sufficient response,” Saiki said.

He said the response came in an email from Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist, which Saiki described as a “strong response.”

Even accounting for the artificially high numbers on Monday, Hawaii’s case count has been rising dramatically. According to the Hawaii Data Collaborative, the seven-day moving average of new cases on Oahu, which has the vast majority of cases, was 11 on July 1. On Aug. 1, the seven-day moving average for Oahu was 79.

That sort of growth is a concern for Hawaii’s health care system, said Ray Vara, president and chief executive of Hawaii Pacific Health, which operates several large hospitals in Hawaii. If the number of new cases continues to rise, the sheer volume of new cases could eventually simply overwhelm the hospitals, he said.

“That’s certainly where we’re going to find ourselves,” he said.

With Hawaii’s tourism industry largely shut down because of a mandatory 14-day quarantine for new arrivals into the state, officials have been under pressure to ease restrictions in order to help revive the business and rehire tens of thousands of lost jobs.

Gov. David Ige on Monday told the committee the state still is on track to implement a plan to allow visitors to sidestep the quarantine if they test negative for the disease within a few days of coming to Hawaii. That plan is supposed to go into effect on Sept. 1.

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