Hawaii Health Director Bruce Anderson warned on Monday that the coronavirus is now entrenched in the Oahu community, marking an alarming new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We must accept the new reality: The virus is widespread on Oahu,” said Anderson, noting that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for contact tracers to pinpoint the source of infection as the virus grows more and more prevalent.

Hawaii now has seen 2,448 positive cases of coronavirus since state health officials started reporting testing results in March. More than 500 of those cases were reported in the last seven days, and most of them are on Oahu.

Department of Health Director, Dr. Bruce Anderson gestures during press conference on COVID-19 at the Capitol.
Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson gestures during a press conference on COVID-19 at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Historically, about 1% to 2% of tests conducted in Hawaii have come back with positive COVID-19 results. But in recent days that percentage has crept up close to 5%.

“Any time it gets over 5%, there’s reason for concern,” Anderson said. “Some of the states where they’re having large outbreaks have high rates of over 10%. And, obviously, we don’t want to be there.”

The growing prevalence of COVID-19 in Hawaii could jeopardize the state’s ability to reopen public schools, bring college students back to campus and invite visitors to return to Hawaii, said Hawaii Gov. David Ige.

Yet while Ige and Anderson blamed the surge in new cases on increasingly relaxed public behavior, they offered no new policies to help thwart its hastening spread. Instead, they repeatedly called on residents to take personal responsibility for their actions.

“Wear your mask,” Ige said. “Stay home when you’re sick. Keep your children home when they’re sick. Wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer. We were successful in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases in the past. And I just need to ask each and every one of us to redouble our efforts so we can be successful once again.”

While there were no new statewide policies announced to combat the spread of COVID-19, Oahu has recently enacted new prevention policies. Last Friday, Oahu bars shut down for three weeks. And, effective Monday, indoor and outdoor social gatherings on Oahu are restricted to 10 people or fewer, regardless of whether people are from the same household.

But without a vaccine or a complete lockdown, Anderson said it’s unrealistic that Hawaii’s infection counts will return to a rate of one or two cases per day. It’s critical, however, that residents work together to flatten the curve as much as possible.

The 7-day moving average for new cases has shot up from 13.5 on July 1 to 106 on Aug. 3. April Estrellon/Civil Beat

Rather than shut down an entire industry, Ige said he and the county mayors are discussing how to improve enforcement of public health policies at bars that ignore sanitation guidelines or restaurants that don’t adhere to social distancing rules.

For example, Ige said he and the county mayors are working with bar and restaurant industry leaders to discuss the merits of avoiding pay-per-view promotions that tend to attract large crowds or implementing reservations systems that would control the number of people in an establishment.

State lawmakers on Monday called for the DOH to provide more data on how cases are spreading. Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki said the state health department has refused to share information about how many new infections are spreading at bars, funerals, beach gatherings and other locations so that the public can make data-informed decisions about which activities are riskier than others. Saiki said health officials claim such information is confidential.

And while Ige and the county mayors are discussing the possibility of reinstating a 14-day quarantine for interisland travelers, Ige said that many of the travel-related cases stem from residents who traveled to the mainland, became infected with the virus and then brought it back with them to Hawaii.

Ige said officials have begun to analyze travel data to better understand how travel is affecting the virus’ spread.

Is Contact Tracing Working?

As Hawaii struggles to get a handle on the alarming spike in coronavirus cases, critics of the Department of Health have continued to call for the state to hire more contract tracers.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, the state’s COVID-19 medical liaison, says the Hawaii Department of Health should have doubled its contact tracing team weeks —  if not months —  ago.

But Anderson says the department has enough staff in place to handle the current workload.  Anderson said the department currently has 105 contact tracers, up from about 70 last week.

Next week, the department is prepared to onboard about 20 more contact tracers, Anderson said, as state health regulators expect to see a continued rise in new daily infections.

More than 400 people have completed a University of Hawaii contact tracing program. Ige said the DOH is hiring in batches from this pool of trainees as daily case counts grow.

Another 60 members of the National Guard have also received training in contact tracing and can be deployed as needed to join the effort to identify people who have the disease and the people they’ve come in contact with.

“We’re not going to see this problem go away by adding more contact tracers,” Anderson said. “We’re going to have to start focusing much more on prevention activities: social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, of course, hand washing. And probably the most important thing is if you feel ill, stay home.”

Anderson said the state’s average testing turnaround time is favorable: 24 hours on Oahu and 48 hours on neighbor islands. There are not presently any capacity shortages when it comes to testing, hospital beds, ventilators or isolation and quarantine facilities, he said.

Civil Beat Reporter Eleni Gill contributed to this report.

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