Big Island Coronavirus Updates

Mayor Kim’s Plan Poses Serious Health Risks, Scientists Say

March 19, 2020, 7:03 PM HST
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As of Thursday, March 19, Hawai‘i County was home to the fewest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state. However, due to the policies currently being pursued by the county government, its residents and visitors could end up proving the population most at risk.

On Wednesday, Mayor Harry Kim outlined plans to keep all county-maintained parks and beaches open, as well as leave the decision on whether to close congregational businesses like bars and nightclubs to the discretion of the businesses themselves.

Kim’s decision flies directly in the face of the medical advice repeated over and again by Hawai‘i Gov. David Ige and the state’s two top health officials, Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park.

“It’s all about social distancing,” Park said during a media teleconference Thursday afternoon, repeating the two buzzwords health officials and senior policymakers have hammered time after time in every public statement made about the COVID-19 pandemic over the last week.

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Kim’s plan also contrasts starkly with the policies soon to be enacted by mayors on every other major island — as O‘ahu and Maui will mandate social distancing practices for all restaurants, bars and related businesses, and Kaua‘i will enforce a 9 p.m. curfew indefinitely.

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Ige, earlier in the week, urged travelers to postpone vacations to Hawai‘i, while Lieutenant Gov. Josh Green has suggested halting all non-essential travel to the state and subjecting new arrivals to mandatory quarantine.

And on Thursday, Hawai‘i House of Representatives Speaker Scott Saiki sent a letter to the governor requesting a mandatory 15-day quarantine of every person in the state.

“The handling of this COVID-19 pandemic has been utterly chaotic and there is mass confusion among the public,” Saiki wrote. “The number of positive test results is exponentially increasing on a daily basis. To protect people and the long-term sustainability of our economy, I implore you to immediately order the shutdown and sheltering-in-place of all people in the State of Hawai‘i.”

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Dr. Celine Gounder, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at New York University, has said flatly and repeatedly in multiple interviews since the COVID-19 outbreak hit the United States that not practicing intensive social distancing will prove catastrophic.

It will lead to more hospitalizations, a collapse of hospital resources nationwide, and more deaths due to both coronavirus itself and because those with other serious conditions will be unable to receive the healthcare they need to survive, Gounder has contended.

Mayor Harry Kim.

So why is Mayor Kim zigging when every other decision-maker in the Hawaiian Islands is zagging?

“I explained to (Gov. Ige) we might choose a different option because the necessity of food and feeding tourists is much more difficult here because of the size of the island and the separation of districts,” Kim said Wednesday.“My question is where are they going to eat? I made the decisions … to provide places to eat for people.”

Kim was clear in his directives Wednesday morning that businesses in question that chose to stay open needed to take significant measures to ensure social distancing within establishments, like enhancing cleanliness policies and creating safe distances between groups inside establishments like restaurants and bars.

But the advice of experts indicates that simply won’t be enough. Park said Thursday it’s time Hawai‘i starts considering that nothing will be “business as usual” for months, or possibly through the end of the year. Keeping congregational businesses and public gathering areas open will enhance the spread of COVID-19 and keep the pandemic going strong for a longer period of time.

DOH Director Anderson said he had a discussion with Mayor Kim about that exact topic after Hawai‘i County announced its marching orders Wednesday.

“I told him any venue where people gather may transmit disease,” Anderson said. “The governor recommended things should close. We’ll probably see additional recommendations coming down the line.”

“This is going to be a judgment call on the part of mayors and others struggling with these issues,” Anderson continued.

Environmental consequences

Epidemiologists aren’t the only scientists that see potential problems with Kim’s plan, and humans aren’t the only living species that could be negatively impacted by it.

Ho‘okena Beach Park file photo.

Part of what Kim will do to keep beaches open, and the people who visit them safe, is spray down picnic tables, park benches and sidewalks with a chemical disinfectant multiple times every day. Beaches, plant life and water will not be sprayed directly, however, foggers will be used, which could lead to chemicals landing on unintended surfaces in at least small amounts.

This work will be done by members of Kim’s joint Bug Busters Task Force, to be manned by employees from the Departments of Public Works and Parks & Recreation.

“I believe the chemicals being used to disinfect public areas is a diluted solution containing sodium hypochlorite, NaOCl (bleach),” DAR Aquatic Biologist Troy Sakihara wrote in an email. “I’m not sure if there are other chemicals in the mixture, but NaOCl is toxic to aquatic life.”

Just because bleach is toxic to inhabitants of Hawai‘i’s near-shore waters doesn’t necessarily mean there would be significant damage done by spraying for COVID-19.

“NaOCl breaks down under UV light rather rapidly, so a small amount of chemicals sprayed on surfaces (benches, tables, rails, etc.) having a significant impact on the aquatic environment is unlikely,” Sakihara continued. “In the event that these chemicals enter the water, it could result in a localized and acute die-off of aquatic organisms depending on the quantity and concentration of the pesticide.”

Executive Director and Cofounder of the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund Hannah Bernard said the conflicting nature of directives across the state is a consequence of fractured leadership that can be traced all the way up the chain.

“This is a symptom of not having a cohesive management plan for a situation like this,” she said. “It’s reflective of what’s happening on the mainland — states reacting piecemeal, and now Hawai‘i acting county by county.”

Bernard added that human health should be the paramount concern of both the state and the county, but that Kim’s strategy shows an incomplete consideration in this regard.

“We need to start taking care of ourselves in the context that we’re part of an ecosystem, part of nature,” she said. “If we thrive at the expense of our own ecosystem, eventually there’s a price to pay.”

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