The number of known, active COVID-19 cases being monitored by authorities on Hawaii island on July 30 stood at just one, but that didn’t last. Now, a rapid recent growth in the number of infections has many residents wondering exactly what is driving the surge.

But while the state Department of Health says it is aware of a series of large gatherings in East Hawaii in late July and early August, so far investigators have been unable to link any coronavirus cases to the group events.

The surge has been quite fast — and worrisome. By Aug. 15, the number of active cases on Hawaii island had climbed to 16, and by Aug. 30 there were 151 active cases, according to daily bulletins generated by the Hawaii County Civil Defense.

On Thursday, Civil Defense reported 227 active cases — by far the most ever for the island at one time.

Large gatherings are associated with the spread of COVID-19, but the state Department of Health has been unable to trace any of the recent cases in East Hawaii to a series of large gatherings there. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Civil Defense has specifically raised concerns about large gatherings in East Hawaii, noting in an Aug. 23 bulletin that “health data shows the majority of these new cases have been identified as Hilo-based gatherings where people failed to practice preventive measures.”

“An example of this is the huge gathering of remembrance recently held in East Hawaii,” the Civil Defense message said. It has also been reported that people in social gatherings, such as beaches and parks, are disregarding the policies of prevention.”

Civil Defense warned at the time that county police would step up their enforcement of prevention policies such as limits on the size of gatherings.

The “huge gathering of remembrance” was a reference to events on July 25 in memory of Kaulana Pakele, a Hilo High graduate and musician with Mana’o Company who apparently drowned off the leeward Oahu shoreline. Those events included ceremonies in Hawaiian Paradise Park and a scattering of ashes at Hilo’s Puhi Bay as well as at least one informal gathering afterward that involved some of the same people.

Mayor Harry Kim said he was not aware of the gatherings until they were over, but “after that, information started to come in in regards to suspect that is perhaps one of — or the cause of, I don’t know — of why Hilo started to get bombarded” with new cases.

The DOH hasn’t traced a single specific COVID-19 infection to that gathering, said Eric Honda, acting district health officer for the Department of Health.

But Honda added a word of caution: “Keep in mind that our case investigations are based on the information that the individuals (who test positive) share,” he said. “If they choose not to say ‘Yes, I went to the Pakele funeral,’ then we could not associate that case to that funeral. It is based on the information we gather.”

National data on how the disease is transmitted and how large gatherings affect the spread of COVID-19 clearly point to increases in cases when there are large gatherings, Honda said. “If you look at the timing of these events and timing of when we started to see the cases, I think that’s the association,” he said.

But sleuthing out the cause of the recent infections is complex. Health Director Bruce Anderson said in a letter to state Sen. Kai Kahele on Wednesday that the department is aware of four large gatherings in East Hawaii in late July and early August at locations in Keaukaha, Hilo, Puna and Kalapana.

“Due to the timing of the Hilo surge in mid-August, there is reason to believe they are related to the increase in cases, but as of yet no definitive link has been identified between the events, travel history and a specific source based on information gathered from contact tracing,” Anderson wrote.

Kim announced Wednesday that all county and state beach parks on Hawaii island will be closed for two weeks from Friday through Sept. 18 to help cope with the spike in COVID-19 cases. The intent is to prevent further spread of the virus by limiting beach gatherings.

“Department of Health contact tracing has shown that large gatherings are a key source of the virus’s spread, with several clusters being linked to social gatherings,” according to the county announcement of the closures.

“We are at a critical stage, and we must stop the spread of the virus,” said Kim in a written statement.

Beach parks can only be used for access to the ocean, to exercise, for fishing and gathering food, and for using the bathrooms and shower facilities, according to the statement. Park restrooms and showers will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources also announced Thursday that an area known as “Narnia” outside of Hilo is now closed after an estimated 100 people gathered in the area last weekend.

That portion of the Hilo Restricted Watershed Section of the Hilo Forest Reserve is a popular area for hiking and swimming, with waterways that include the Wailuku River, Hookelekele Stream, Lauiole Falls, Pukamaui Falls and Kauwehu Falls.

A major access point to the area is through an area known as the J-7 ranch on state lands, and that area is now closed to the public, according to the DLNR. The department’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement and county police will be enforcing the closure, according to the statement.

In an effort to learn more about the origins of the Hilo surge, Honolulu Civil Beat is asking anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 after spending time at large gatherings in East Hawaii to contact us at kdayton@civilbeat.org.

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