COVID-19 Found on Big Island as Testing Ramps Up Statewide

March 17, 2020, 2:30 PM HST (Updated March 17, 2020, 2:30 PM)
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Bruce Anderson. Courtesy photo.

Hawai‘i Department of Health officials announced four new presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 Tuesday afternoon, including the first in Hawai‘i County.

DOH had limited information about the Big Island case, saying only that the person was a non-resident traveler who came to Hawai‘i from the mainland.

The other three cases included a traveler on Maui and two residents on O‘ahu with recent travel histories abroad, including Japan and the Philipines. All four new presumptive positive cases are adults.

DOH Director Bruce Anderson said the now three confirmed cases and 11 presumptive cases of COVID-19 in Hawai‘i are just the first small leaks in a dam that is almost certain to break.

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“The virus is spreading rapidly through much of the US,” Anderson said in a teleconference with media members Tuesday. “There are many areas of community spread. When that happens (here), you’re going to see a dramatic increase in the number of cases.”

Case counts are now available on the DOH website. State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said the case count will be updated as of noon every day. Currently, the site is reporting only 13 confirmed or presumptive positive cases, as officials only learned about the most recent COVID-19 patient in Maui within the hour.

Park and Anderson said those living in Hawai‘i should expect more fluid reporting and increased numbers of test results positive for COVID-19 as testing is now in full swing. That will mean, however, that accurate numbers will change daily, or even hourly.

Namely, the state is now receiving several reports from private labs. Clinical Labs of Hawai‘i had tested more than 350 people as of Tuesday morning. Diagnostic Laboratory Services, Inc. has at least 300 tests pending, Park said. Lab testing at Kaiser Permanente facilities is not yet up and running.

Tests conducted at private labs are sent to the mainland and have a turnaround time of three to four days. Thus, by the time the tests are returned, the private providers are likely to have more information than state officials, who will be brought up to speed once the results are in.

State laboratories are also conducting tests, typically on “seriously ill people with exposure history that would warrant testing,” Anderson said. The state has conducted upwards of 40 of those tests “with at least a dozen or so” found to be positive.

The third stage of COVID-19 testing currently ongoing is part of the community surveillance program announced last week. Specimens for those tests are taken at random from patients across the state with mild to moderate symptoms who tested negative for the flu virus. So far, the state has conducted 62 of those tests with zero positive results.

Tests that are part of the surveillance program are meant to gauge community spread. Anderson said another 200 or so will be conducted this week.

Big Island testing sites now exist at Hilo Medical Center, West Hawai‘i Community Health Center and North Hawai‘i Community Hospital. However, Park stressed Tuesday that healthy individuals and those with mild illnesses need to stay home and away from testing sites.

“Only those who are symptomatic and have a physician’s order will be tested,” Anderson said.

There will likely be people at those testing sites who are positive for COVID-19, Park added, meaning residents taking it upon themselves to walk into a testing site will not only fail to achieve their objectives, but they will put themselves and other members of the public at risk.

“For the safety of our community and the individual, we need to make sure those who are well or with mild illness … do not go to these testing sites,” Park continued.

Judicious testing practices are also important, as the state has limited coronavirus testing supplies and there is a global shortage of personal protection equipment healthcare workers need to safely administer testing and treatment.

That said, those who qualify for testing will not be turned away for any reason.

“No one is going to be turned away from hospitals or not tested because they can’t pay for the test,” Anderson said.

Most insurance companies have agreed to incorporate the test for COVID-19 into their coverage, Anderson continued. For those with insurance who can’t afford the copay, that fee will be waived. Those without insurance will also be tested if a physician deems they meet the aforementioned qualifications.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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