The delta variant is driving record-high coronavirus cases on Oahu and Hawaii island, but neither has enough designated rooms to quarantine COVID-19 patients who want to prevent their loved ones from getting sick.

Brooks Baehr, spokesman for the Department of Health, said that the state is working with the counties to secure more hotel rooms for quarantine and isolation. But far fewer rooms are available for coronavirus patients than there were last year, and Baehr said that’s because so many are being rented to tourists.

“Hotels that provided isolation/quarantine rooms last year are now reserving those rooms for visitors,” he said in an email Monday.

Patient transporter Randy Puootuuo stands in full personal protective equipment outside the van he drives during media tour at the Pearl Hotel Waikiki. September 10, 2020
Health officials had plenty of hotel rooms for COVID-19 patients last year after the tourist industry shut down. Now visitors are back, and Honolulu has far fewer available rooms for patients. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Last week, 30 people were wait-listed for 64 rooms on Oahu. That’s less than a quarter of the total number of rooms that were contracted for isolating Honolulu coronavirus patients at this time last year, when daily case counts were lower and the dominant virus strain less contagious.

As of Thursday, 57 of those 64 rooms were in use, with the rest undergoing cleaning in preparation for new patients, Baehr said.

That’s still better than Hawaii County, where no rooms are available for residents who need to quarantine or isolate.

Cyrus Johnasen, spokesman for Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth, said the county had a contract for 119 hotel rooms for quarantine and isolation of COVID-19 patients but that expired on July 31.

Since then, COVID-19 daily case counts have spiked. Both Oahu and Hawaii County posted 8% positivity rates Monday, higher than the state average. Despite statewide vaccination rates exceeding 60%, cases shot up in July due to the highly infectious delta variant.

Johnasen said the county is in the process of securing more rooms.

The rooms may be particularly needed by people who live in overcrowded homes or multigenerational homes and are unable to quarantine from their roommates and family members.

In Hawaii, non-Hawaiian Pacific Islander such as Samoans and Marshallese are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to live in large households. Pacific Islanders currently make up 18% of Hawaii’s coronavirus cases even though they’re just 4% of the population.

On Maui, 12 of 16 isolation rooms are in use. There’s more availability on Kauai, where four of 24 isolation rooms are in use. Another four rooms are available on Lanai, Baehr said.

But he believes that unlike last year, the delta variant is too contagious to be contained by adding more quarantine rooms.

“The delta variant is so transmissible it is likely people have infected household members by the time they experience symptoms and get test results,” Baehr wrote.

“Because their household members have likely been infected, people who test positive are urged to isolate themselves at home rather than seek accommodation in an isolation/quarantine facility,” he continued.

But Monique Chyba, a University of Hawaii mathematics professor who is part of the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group, said isolation and quarantine rooms could help prevent Hawaii’s hospital system from being overwhelmed.

“That’s a major, major issue,” she said of the lack of isolation rooms on Hawaii island. “It’s community spread. If you don’t have the ability to isolate, that means you may spread it.”

Calls To Help Line Surge

For now, Baehr said the state is prioritizing people housed in congregate living facilities — such as shelters and care homes — for the rooms that are available.

Meanwhile, calls to the state’s 24/7 behavioral health crisis line are skyrocketing. As of Friday, the phone line — 832-3100, known as the CARES line — had a seven-day average of 394 daily calls, up from 280 daily calls in the previous seven days.

Last year, the state marketed the line as a resource for COVID-19 patients who were trapped at home and needed help with food, medicine or accessing isolation units.

Now, Baehr said, while most of the calls are about COVID-19, the state discourages people from calling about the virus.

“The CARES line’s primary purpose is to provide timely help for those experiencing a behavioral health crisis. People with questions about COVID-19 are asked not to call the CARES line. They can find answers to most questions at hawaiicovid19.com,” he said.

Fewer Rooms

A year ago, Oahu had far more rooms available for quarantine and isolation of COVID-19 patients. In August 2020, then-Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced a partnership with the Department of Health to expand the capacity to more than 300 units.

That enabled hundreds of sick people to isolate from their friends and family and help prevent the virus’ spread. At the time, hotel occupancy rates were down at least 50% as lockdowns and travel restrictions kept visitors home, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and some hotels welcomed the revenue.

Now, tourism is roaring back, and in June, hotel occupancy was up more than 70%. Oahu’s room capacity for COVID-19 quarantine and isolation patients is less than 22% what it was a year ago.

Baehr said the task of ensuring sufficient isolation and quarantine rooms is a joint effort between the state, counties and private contractors.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s office said the city doesn’t have contracts for additional isolation facilities for COVID-19 patients apart from city-owned facilities, and did not say if Blangiardi intends to secure any additional rooms.

In August 2020, Eddie Mersereau, then the head of the Department of Health’s behavioral health services administration, told Civil Beat that the CARES line was averaging 250 calls per day and placing 10 patients per day on average into hotel rooms to isolate.

His goal at the time was to respond to patients within hours, not days.

One year later, calls to the line are up 57% and there are more patients who need rooms than available rooms. Mersereau is no longer with the Department of Health’s behavioral health services administration. Baehr said his successor, Marian Tsuji, was not available for comment.

“It can take several days to place people in an isolation/quarantine facility,” Baehr said.

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