Hawai´i reported its worst 24 hours in COVID history Friday, with daily infections numbering in the thousands for the first time.
A total of 1,167 new cases were identified, the largest portion of a three-day tally that topped off just shy of 2,200. But no new restrictions are coming to the islands. Not yet.
“We do talk about reinstating restrictions constantly,” Governor David Ige said at an impromptu press conference called Friday in response to the colossal coronavirus count. “We don’t have any specific plans at this point and time.”
“We are evaluating changes to (the state’s Safe Travels Program).”
Ige continues to hold fast against mandatory lockdowns, the abandonment of in-person learning and enhanced travel requirements, even among those with vaccination cards. But in Hawai´i’s attempts to forge a new normal, the state has stumbled into an unprecedented phase of the same old pandemic, only this time on steroids.
The Delta variant is surging in almost every community on every major Hawaiian Island, responsible now for 80% of new cases, according to Department of Health (DOH) Director Dr. Elizabeth Char.
Those statistics lend themselves to the message continually pushed by the DOH and out of the Governor’s Office — that wide community spread is the primary accelerant fueling the pandemic. If that’s where the problem is, officials say, then that’s where the public will find its answers.
Absent the institution of more regulations, however, state leadership on Friday adopted the less proven approach of appealing to a sense of personal responsibility among Hawai´i residents to rein in the spread of the virus.
“If you can go back to thinking of what we did before we had vaccines … that would work really well right now,” Char said, invoking the practices of ardent mask wearing and abstaining from social gatherings of any kind. “If we locked ourselves down right now, I guarantee our numbers would come down.”
“We can and must turn this around,” the governor added. “It is time to believe the science.”
Ige offered no baseline case counts or hospitalization rates at which he will temporarily surrender a bid for ‘back to normal’ in favor of stemming the viral tide now more than encroaching upon Hawaiian shores.
Currently, the prevailing message from the state is that planes in the air and kids in the classroom aren’t big enough parts of the problem to warrant direct restrictions. That anything more than the tightening of social gathering policies the governor announced earlier this week would have a minimal impact.
Ige said only 10-12% of new COVID infections statewide are connected to travel, and only 1-2% involve visitors.
It is important to note, however, the statistical context that vaccinated travelers are never subjected to tests, despite proof that the Delta variant, which is the dominant viral strain in the US, can infect and be spread by fully vaccinated people, even if most of those carriers never get sick. The rest of the visitors are required to pass a COVID test within 72 hours of departure for Hawai´i to avoid a mandatory 10-day quarantine, but are never screened again unless they seek it out.
“Yeah, probably we are undercounting travelers,” Char admitted Friday.
But she also pointed out that returning residents, who the DOH says do the vast majority of COVID damage via travel, are more of a concern because they come home and go back to work, spend time with their families and gather with friends. Tourists stick largely to resorts, guided tours, and more isolated activities.
As for public schools, officials continue on a hard line of “the benefits outweigh the risks” for students who need in-person learning to achieve what the state has deemed an appropriate level of education.
The Department of Education identified 105 cases among students and faculty during a short first week of instruction, which began on Tuesday, Aug. 3 or Wednesday Aug. 4 for most. Those numbers were released last Friday.
Hawai´i schools and complex areas reported a total of 325 confirmed cases between Aug. 7 and 13, the second week of school and the first full Monday-Friday class schedule.
All DOE employees will also be required to be tested weekly for COVID-19 beginning Aug. 23 to comply with a recent vaccination mandate passed down by Gov. David Ige.
Ige announced last week that all state and county employees would be required to test weekly for the virus or get inoculated. If a DOE employee can certify and provide proof of full vaccination, the employee will not be subject to the weekly testing requirement. This requirement applies to all DOE employees, including salaried and casuals/substitutes, as well as volunteers.
Talking points making the rounds at media sessions for the DOE, DOH and the governor all have merit, but there is much that is also left unsaid.
There are more than 150,000 students in Hawai´i and many of their parents work, so keeping them home isn’t simple.
Tying off tourism would lead to a regression back toward the economic despair of 2020 that cannibalized a section of Hawai´i’s economy and decimated most of the rest of it. Many businesses will be resistant to the notion.
Enforcing new lockdown orders could prove more challenging among a populace ripened by 18 months of frustration and resentment, and some scenes would have the potential to grow ugly with haste.
Ige has to handle regulatory decisions carefully. And so, in the meantime, the deterrents of contact tracing and ramped up testing are what his administration has chosen to deploy. Though contact tracing will continue, Char said more than 7,000 cases currently active across the state means there is no chance tracers will get in touch with everyone. But they will try.
“Please don’t yell or scream at us when we call you,” she said at the podium Friday. “We’re only trying to help you and your loved ones.”
Char added that the surge happened “like a flash” and the testing response is now beginning to follow. In early July, Hawai´i was testing 1,000-2,000 people per day. That number has jumped to 8,000-10,000. The DOH is working to make sure as much testing as possible is free to the public, as more sites are going up across the islands to meet the rising demand.
The Delta variant has also changed things, Char continued. Testers are finding up to 1,000x more virus in infected people than those who got COVID earlier and by way of lesser strains. The virual incubation period has shrunk from 3-7 days to 3-5 days. And the vaccine doesn’t provide quite “the armor” that it used to when battling Delta, Char said.
But it is still effective. The DOH director said any of the three available vaccines are still highly likely to keep those who become subsequently infected out of the hospital and out of the grave.
“The vaccine is still very very good at what it was designed to do — prevent death, hospitalization and severe illness,” Char said.
Fully vaccinated individuals in Hawai´i are testing positive for the virus at a rate of two people for every 10,000. The hospitalization rate is significantly lower that that, Char continued, while the chance of dying is “miniscule.” To date, three fully vaccinated individuals have died of COVID-19 infection across all islands.
It is important for vaccinated individuals to remember that two people in every 10,000 is still more than zero. Anyone who is infected becomes the site of a possible COVID mutation, Char explained. Over time, with enough mutations, new variants emerge that have adapted to the conditions of the human immune system as well as the various vaccinations in circulation.
“The key for us is to keep the infection rate as low as we can,” Char said. “We don’t want to encourage the creation of more variants.”