Lee Cataluna: A Pandemic Looks Very Different In A Small Town Like Kauai - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org


There is a little ritual that people from Kauai perpetuate. When they meet someone new, they devote the first few minutes of the conversation trying to find a common acquaintance.

Oh, you grew up in Hanamaulu? You must know my cousin Shirley. Oh, you stayed at the Sheraton?  My Aunty Verna works at the front desk. She must have checked you in. Oh, you surfed at that beach? The third house with the blue truck and the fish nets in the garage is my uncle’s house. Oh, you’re from Oregon? My cousin Kaipo grad from Oregon. 

The questioning only lasts a few minutes because there’s always a connection. The rest of the world may be six degrees of separation, but on Kauai, it’s usually only one or two. Kauai has been contact tracing for generations before anyone ever heard that term. It’s a big part of small-town life.

If you look at Kauai’s COVID-19 situation from purely a numbers standpoint, as some Honolulu doctors and lawmakers point out, nobody on the island should be panicking about the state’s Safe Travels program.

But that’s Oahu-centric thinking. That’s looking at numbers, and not people. That’s looking at cases and hospital beds and not Old Mr. Silva who lives in the red house by the mango tree or Aunty Dottie who takes her dog for a walk in a baby doll stroller every morning and puts hands of bananas from her backyard in all her neighbors’ mailboxes.

Kauai, with a population of 72,800, is still country compared to Oahu’s citified ways. High-end resorts have sprung up along Kauai’s shores, but it’s still a small town where people know one another and feel connected. That’s one of the reasons newcomers move to Kauai — for that lifestyle, that connectedness, that feeling that is the opposite of the anonymity of a city.

If the math says that Kauai should be able to handle one positive incoming COVID-19 case a day, that does not translate to a safe number in a small, tight-knit community. That translates into, “Well, who is it? Who is the one? Is it somebody who is going to be shopping in the market where my grandma shops? Will it be someone who passes by too close in the store aisle? Will it be someone who ends up at a beach barbecue and sneezes on the macaroni salad?”

Passengers board a North Shore shuttle at Kee beach on Kauai — pre-pandemic. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat

That “easily handled” one-a-day can spread exponentially. Not that it will, but it can. And that possibility is unacceptable in a small town where options are, by the very definition of small town living, limited, and people are known to each other, interconnected, bonded.

Kauai had a daily case count of zero for months while Oahu’s caseload zoomed up to triple digits. Lanai had a scary outbreak. Hawaii island had clusters of cases and the terrible deaths at Okutsu Veterans Home. Maui Memorial Hospital had its troubles early on.

Kauai has been the outlier not by luck, but by concentrated effort. When you’ve worked hard to keep the island safe, the idea of having one new case a day is not safe. It is a breach of a strong frontline. It is letting the monster slip through the gate.

It’s much harder to take on risk in a small town when numbers are real people and you are connected to each one.

As all are well aware after watching 10 months of worldwide coverage on this pandemic, it is never just one case that fizzles out on its own, it is always the beginning of spread in a community.

When things get bad, patients on Kauai are often transferred to Oahu hospitals. It’s often the doctors themselves who make the call to send a patient to Honolulu. This is true for both trauma cases and longterm serious illnesses. It has been a fairly common practice for years. It is not a complete measure of COVID-19 readiness to count ICU beds available on Kauai.

It is not an insult to the island to say that there is no major trauma hospital on Kauai. It’s just a fact. If a resident gets very sick with COVID-19 and has to get transferred to an Oahu hospital, that is trauma on top of trauma for a family who can’t go with them to even stand outside the hospital and send up prayers through the windows.

When Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami talks about his request to temporarily opt out of the state’s Safe Travels program, he talks about the numbers, but the weight of small-town worries plays out on his face.

He knows putting a pause on a rush of incoming tourists will hurt the island’s visitor industry and the residents who rely on those jobs, but on the other side of the equation is life, and not just anonymous numbers of people getting sick or dying, but people he knows, people every person on Kauai probably knows. It’s much harder to take on risk in a small town when numbers are real people and you are connected to each one.

If every community’s approach to COVID-19 was so personal and specific and compassionately cautious, maybe the nationwide numbers wouldn’t be so horrible right now.


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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org


Latest Comments (0)

Thank you for this thoughtful perspective of how our islands leaders have dealt with the the pandemic.  I appreciate their tough decisions and prioritizing Kupuna and our Ohana over dollars and risk. After all, our tiny island is only 28 x 28 so everyone is a friend or a friend of a friend...Mahalo

islandlynx · 4 months ago

Kauai’s Mayor has more common sense than Ige and all our government officials including those in Congress. We need Mayor Kawakami as our next Governor. 

dcnsnow · 4 months ago

I like this article, it is inspiring. I am impressed on how Mayor Derek Kawakami handles the virus while maintaining the lowest rate cases of Covid-19 in Kauai’ island with120 positive cases and 1 death. His Idea of opting out state’s safe travel program is ideal because he was thinking the safety of his people even if their economy is at stake, still he thinks the lives of his fellow Islanders, whom everybody knows everyone in the community with only 72,800 population.

Sandel82 · 4 months ago

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