An undercount of positive coronavirus infections earlier this week contributed to a daily COVID-19 case count that surpassed 1,000 for the first time on Friday. Gov. David Ige said the average positive case count over the past three days was 729, yet announced no new restrictions, urging people to take “personal responsibility.”
State House Speaker Scott Saiki, meanwhile, called on the governor to require that people provide proof of vaccination to enter establishments, especially since officials say the vast majority of the cases are among unvaccinated people.
The director of the Department of Health Libby Char warned that the state is on “fire” as hospital employees are overwhelmed by the recent surge in cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
“When we have hospitals that are really worried about being able to take care of people, that’s a crisis,” she said at a joint press conference with Ige. “And at the point at which we overwhelm our resources, that’s a disaster and that’s where we’re heading.”
Char asked the community to start preparing for the disaster by creating a “COVID plan” that includes a place to isolate away from family, alternative care providers for children and a plan for remote grocery access.
Despite her recommendations to hunker down, avoid travel and gatherings, Ige did not impose any new restrictions or provide information on any new resources to help accommodate people with their COVID-19 plan. He said the state does not currently have any additional resources.
“We want everyone to take personal responsibility for keeping our community healthy and safe,” he said.
Saiki was critical of this decision, calling for stricter measures.
“The governor should implement a health pass that will require persons to show proof of full vaccination to enter establishments, such as restaurants, gyms, and stores,” he said in a statement. “I am confident that Hawaii residents will support such a move because they want to protect their children, families and friends.”
While the governor has imposed a vaccine mandate for tens of thousands of state and county public workers to be vaccinated by Monday or submit to weekly testing, he has not indicated any plans to require proof of vaccination for local establishments. He also announced no changes to the Safe Travels program, although he said those were being considered.
“When we have hospitals that are really worried about being able to take care of people, that’s a crisis.” — DOH Director Libby Char
Ige acknowledged that the state is trending in the wrong direction, noting that a man in his 30s died on Thursday and that hospitals are filling up with younger people. Char continued by saying that health care workers are all tremendously fatigued.
“Staffing is really tight right now,” Char said. According to Healthcare Association of Hawaii communication manager Stacy Wong, more than 500 health care staffers from the mainland are scheduled to arrive over the next few days to assist Hawaii’s hospitals.
“The urgent need is for staffing, and the professionals coming in are nurses, respiratory therapists and other professionals who can assist with care,” she said. “FEMA is expected to help pay for this staffing.” Fifty ICU beds and 38 ventilators are currently in use by COVID-19 patients statewide and nearly 40% of COVID cases are people under 30.
Both Char and Ige continued their pleas for everyone to get vaccinated, saying that most positive cases and hospitalizations are those who are not vaccinated. According to Hawaii Health Information Exchange Chief Operating Officer Al Ogata, their labs do not currently receive data on personal vaccination status and the DOH said they do not include vaccination status in their daily counts because they collect that information as a follow-up.
Ogata said that HHIE works to update their data collection system frequently and attributed the data collection glitch to the combination of a larger volume of submissions coming from a growing number of different testing sites across the country.
“Going forward, I think we’re in a good position,” he said. “We identified what happened in this particular case, and we have the root cause analysis going on with the Department of Health.”
On Friday, Hawaii reported 1,167 new coronavirus cases and one new death: 837 on Oahu, 151 on Hawaii island, 109 on Maui, 46 on Kauai, six on Molokai, and 18 residents diagnosed out of state. About 61% of residents are fully vaccinated with the positivity rate reaching 7.4%.
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Lauren Teruya was a Poynter-Koch reporting fellow for Honolulu Civil Beat. She is a graduate of Iolani School and holds a master's degree in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California.