Hawaii will likely need “a week or so” before the omicron-driven Covid-19 surge begins to plateau as cases continue to reach record highs, with a daily average of 4,600 this week, Department of Health Director Dr. Libby Char said Friday.

This is later than previous predictions from Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who both said they expected Hawaii Covid-19 cases to peak this week.

“The slope that almost every state has seen is a near vertical rise in the epidemic curves,” Char said during an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” program. “That may be slowing down a little bit, but certainly we’re still on an upswing.”

Department of Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char in a joint press conference with Governor Ige and Department of Education Keith Hayashi.
Department of Health Director Dr. Libby Char said she expects Hawaii’s Omicron cases will plateau in “a week or so.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The number of Covid-19 hospitalizations also has been rising, with 394 reported Friday, but it remains below the previous high of 436 during the delta surge. Char said that lower rates of patients admitted to the ICU and an influx of hundreds of temporary health care workers from the mainland have kept hospitals from being overwhelmed.

The omicron variant is more infectious but appears to cause relatively mild symptoms compared to past variants, experts say.

Hospitals “were at crisis staffing and real critical staffing,” Char said, referring to the delta surge. “And right now, they’re stretched, but they still have capacity.”

The DOH, however, has struggled to process the massive glut of Covid-19 test results that have flooded state systems since December, forcing the department to stop processing negative results – which are essential for calculating positivity rates – so that positive cases can be counted accurately.

Char said she expects the DOH to resume reporting positivity rates in “another week or so.”

With the Biden administration making four rapid antigen tests available to American households free of charge, at-home testing is becoming more convenient than ever. There is, however, currently no mechanism for residents to self-report positive results to the DOH.

Char acknowledged that meant the official case numbers were an undercount but said the additional results would be hard for the department to handle anyway.

“Can you imagine getting flooded with 50,000 pieces of data every day and then have no way of validating the results?” Char said. Rather than a diagnostic tool, we should think of [rapid tests] as a public health tool, so you can test yourself … and change your behavior accordingly.”

“If you got a negative test, but you’re sick, stay home anyway,” she added.

To guard against omicron and future variants, some health experts have floated the need to introduce a fourth Covid-19 vaccine shot. But at this time, Char said Hawaii should focus on rolling out its third shot, especially as only 31% of residents have opted to receive the booster.

Overall, 75.5% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, meaning two shots with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and one with Johnson & Johnson. Health officials are trying to persuade people to get a booster shot.

You really need that third shot to kind of cement good, solid immunity,” Char said.

Maui will become the first island to require a booster shot to eat-in at bars and restaurants or workout at gyms starting Monday.

Gov. David Ige also is considering mandating the booster for travelers to Hawaii to be considered fully vaccinated and avoid the two-week quarantine under the state’s “Safe Travels” program, measures which Char said she supports.

I understand there are always two sides to everything,” Char said. “But if we can encourage more people to go get boosted, that’s a good thing.”

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