Denby Fawcett: Is Hawaii Pau With The Pandemic? Scientists Say Not So Fast - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Shifts in public opinion can become evident in small, surprising ways.

I could sense a turning point in people’s reaction to the pandemic when I watched a TV report on Super Bowl Sunday about a Waimanalo backyard party.

Opinion article badge

Even though the coronavirus is still infecting and killing residents, the joyous behavior seemed to signal the partygoers were calling their own end to the pandemic. They demonstrated a palpable lifting of fear.

The purpose of the outdoor Super Bowl party held in film actor Kaui Kauhi’s yard was to enjoy the game and raise money for a boxing program Kauhi started for young kids in Waimanalo. Everyone was maskless, standing shoulder to shoulder, eating mounds of noodles and thick slices of prime rib and having fun.

“With the Covid issue, it’s just awesome to be outside again. Pretty soon pau. Pretty soon pau. It’s great to be normal. Last year we couldn’t party,” party emcee Champ Kaneshiro said as he hugged guest Frankie Kepa.

Kaneshiro moved 6 feet away from Kepa. “Stay like this last year,” he said before moving right next to Kepa. “This year we stay like this.”

This sense that the crisis phase of the pandemic is over is evident in many parts of the world and all over the mainland. Elected officials are lifting protective restrictions. Hawaii is the only state left with an indoor mask mandate, although officials are beginning to ease restrictions at the county level.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Thursday he expects on March 5 to lift the Safe Access Hawaii program’s proof of vaccination or negative test requirements to enter restaurants, bars and gyms. Mayor Michael Victorino ended the Safe Access requirements on Maui starting Monday.

Optimism is sparked by the pandemic’s declining infection rates with better immune responses from vaccinations or prior infection, widespread access to testing to reduce the spread and new antiviral medicines.

Historically, many pandemics have ended when people decided they were not afraid anymore — even when the disease persisted. They feel they have endured enough and it’s time to move on.

Medical technicians collect COVID-19 nose swab samples from people lined up in their cars, around the block, at the Blaisdell drive-through testing site in Honolulu, Monday, December 27, 2021. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Health authorities have ratcheted up Covid-19 testing as a way to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

1918 Example

That’s how the global influenza of 1918 ended, when populations — exhausted from the savagery of World War I trench warfare and dismayed by the flu’s death toll of at least 50 million people worldwide — opted out of the dark to move into the light of the Roaring ’20s.

The virus continued to mutate and to kill people — at least 1,489 dead in Hawaii in 1920 where cases peaked later than the mainland — but as the disease also called “la grippe” became less lethal, people pushed daily concern out of their minds.

Science writer Gina Kolata in an essay stated it this way: “According to historians, pandemics typically have two types of endings: the medical, which occurs when the incidence and death rates plummet, and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes.”

At a certain point in pandemics, people decide on their own they will no longer dutifully rely on government mandates and instead are ready to live with their own level of risk.

“Within the set of legitimate strategies, the choice of strategy is less important than whether or not people follow it,” wrote Michael Bang Petersen, a university professor and adviser to the Danish government on Covid-19 policy.

Interestingly, Denmark has the highest per capita Covid-19 infection rates in the world, yet on Feb. 1 the country dropped all restrictions, announcing it would no longer consider the virus “a socially critical disease.”

Not everyone will be happy with the lifting of restrictions. To some it will seem like a slap in the face when infections are still high and they have been trying hard for two years to follow the rules to keep cases low.

“The choice of strategy is less important than whether or not people follow it.” — Michael Bang Petersen

And many medical experts fear that restrictions are being lifted too soon in response to public demand, rather than data, when the disease is still active and more lethal variants may be on the horizon.

“Society may want the virus to end, but I am not convinced the virus is ready to let us go,” said Dr. Tim Brown, an infectious disease expert at the East-West Center.

In a phone conversation Friday, Brown said he sees at least two new variants coming to Hawaii later this year. “We don’t know how dangerous they will be,” he said.

The omicron variant was milder because it moved into a stricken person’s upper respiratory tract rather than directly into lung tissue. A new variant could attack the lungs.

The California Factor

Brown said that if government officials here lack the political will to retain restrictions, they should follow California’s lead: find better surveillance methods to give people early warnings of the next lethal variant and give them tools to effectively protect themselves when it comes.

Better surveillance methods in Hawaii would include having hospitals get a more accurate handle on case numbers by testing not only symptomatic people but asymptomatic people as well, Brown said. Also, more extensive surveying of sewage is needed to get an early warning of where new waves of infection are showing up in specific areas.

Some key features outlined in California’s plan to respond quickly to future surges and new variants of Covid include maintaining a stockpile of 75 million high-quality masks, increasing wastewater surveillance in all areas, being poised to perform at least 500,000 PCR or antigen tests per day as well as having enough home tests for residents and having supplies of the most clinically effective anti-viral drugs readily available.

Also stressed in the California plan is a call to make sure that communities disproportionately affected by Covid in the past, such as low-income groups and older adults, have equal access to preventive measures and treatments.

Going forward, Dr. Jonathan Dworkin, a clinical infectious disease doctor working at The Queen’s Health Systems North Hawaii Community Hospital, said it is important for officials not to give the public false reassurance when the virus remains dangerous and could become even more dangerous in the future.

“How many times in the past year have we watched politicians announce that the pandemic is nearly over, only to backtrack when the situation suddenly deteriorates and the hospitals are threatened? This has been dishonest communication. People should see through it,” said Dworkin, who also is the author of the book “Plague Doctors: How Hawaii Battled the Pandemic.”

He said he’s cautious after working in the hospital during five different surges. “People should understand this is ongoing, and we need to continue to grapple with it. That’s not what anyone wants to hear, but that’s the truth.”

What is different now is that as we continue to grapple with Covid-19, we at least know more about it than we did two years ago and that should make a difference in the future.

Read this next:

Is This How We Want Our Honolulu To Grow?

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

I have always thought it was weird that Hawaii residents tend ti rely on the government (thru laws, emergency proclamations, etc.) to keep them safe. Whatever happened to common sense ? You don't need the government to tell you to do certain things if you are already doing them based on common sense.

BumbleBall · 1 year ago

The pandemic is over when the Federal CARES act money runs out, period. Safe travels will become a thing of the past, as will testing to do things like go out to eat, or to gyms. Being vax will mean you are vaxxed and won't provide you VIP access and things will fall back into place prior to 2020. It's mostly about the money, not the metrics. If you have traveled anywhere at this point, it's easy to see how the rest of America has already gotten back to normal. Hawaii, as always, it just months behind.

wailani1961 · 1 year ago

Denby is spot on about wastewater monitoring. We need to get that up and running ASAP. That's monitoring that shouldn't be too expensive, and doesn't require any effort from most of us, and is also something most of us will not opt out of. Having that as an early warning system will allow us to relax our restrictions while there's not much virus circulating, but also to tighten them proactively when that monitoring shows increasing amounts of virus detected. IMO we should be planning for the next year or two on the assumption that we will see waves of infection, and take advantage of the times between waves to enjoy life, so that when we do have to restrict ourselves during the waves it won't be as bad as if we'd been continuously restricted in what we can do.

Rob · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.