A group of Hawaii-based researchers has a sobering new Covid-19 forecast based on omicron’s sudden and swift spread: Oahu alone could see between 2,000 and 15,000 new daily cases by New Year’s Day.

Further, the state’s most populous island could see a daily hospital census of between 90 and 800 Covid patients by that date, according to the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Working Group, or HiPAM.

The new numbers, released Monday, present a more dire forecast than HiPAM’s previous, days-old model, which predicted that Oahu could see at least 500 new daily cases by Jan. 1.

The state’s Covid case counts and positivity rate have skyrocketed in the past several days, prompting the volunteer partnership of local epidemiologists, data scientists and health professionals to quickly revise their forecast upwards.

“It’s been growing very, very quickly. It’s accelerating much more than we originally thought,” said Monica Chyba, a University of Hawaii mathematics professor with HiPAM.

The Queen's Medical Center West Oahu Covid-19 triage tent. August 24, 2021
Hawaii hospital officials warn that a spike of as many as 800 local Covid patients at once could be “catastrophic.” In September, hospitals such as The Queen’s Medical Center in West Oahu had to set up triage facilities to handle the influx, which peaked at just over 400 Covid patients. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Slides provided by HiPAM on Monday suggested the group would update the neighbor islands’ forecast as the pandemic progresses and omicron is detected there.

The new forecast is valid, said Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii. “Is it definitively going to happen? We don’t know. Can we trust the work they do? Can we trust their assumptions? Yeah.”

Should Oahu hit 800 Covid hospitalizations the situation would be “catastrophic,” Raethel added. The nation’s lone island state doesn’t have sufficient staffing, bed space or oxygen to accommodate so many Covid patients at once, he said.

Hawaii’s pandemic hospitalizations peaked on Sept. 10, when there were some 2,365 hospital patients, including 404 Covid patients statewide. 

At that point, some 700 Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded hospital staff were flown in from the mainland to help manage the patient loads and triage centers erected at The Queen’s Medical Center both in West Oahu and Honolulu. Hospitals on Hawaii island and on Maui also erected triage centers.

HiPAM’s modeling forecasts that Oahu could see between 375 and 1,150 Covid hospitalizations by Feb. 1. The group’s wide range reflects remaining uncertainty, including how dramatically people change their behavior amid the latest surge.

Peoples’ willingness to avoid large gatherings, wear masks and to get either vaccinated or boosted will help determine how exponentially omicron spreads throughout the islands, Chyba said Monday.

In a press release, HiPAM said it could deliver a better and more precise forecast if state health officials released data on how many of the new Covid cases and hospitalized patients had been vaccinated.

It also remains unclear how much of Hawaii’s new case surge has been fueled by omicron so far, versus the delta variant. As of Monday, state Department of Health officials have detected 50 total omicron cases, with all but one of those confirmed on Oahu. “The source and location of the remaining case is being investigated,” the department said in a press release.

HiPAM, however, is assuming that omicron is driving a significant amount of the latest Covid surge, according to Chyba.

Raethel is confident that Hawaii’s hospitals have enough ventilators to handle 800 Covid patients — but they almost certainly wouldn’t have enough oxygen, he said. That’s because the oxygen must either be produced locally or shipped in by boat. The flammable material is too risky to fly in, he said.

The health care association has already started preparing for a new influx of patients and is coordinating with DOH and the Hawaii Emergency Management Association, Raethel said.

“Right now it’s a big warning,” Chyba said Monday of the HiPAM forecast. “But people are (already) shocked by the numbers coming out. If it continues like that, it can be really shocking.”

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