Elderly O‘ahu Man First COVID-19 Victim in Hawai‘i, DOH Assures Accuracy of Test

March 31, 2020, 3:59 PM HST (Updated March 31, 2020, 3:59 PM)
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Bruce Anderson.

The Hawai‘i Department of Health reported the state’s first coronavirus-related fatality Tuesday, saying the victim was an elderly male resident of O‘ahu dealing with several other health complications in addition to the virus.

DOH Director Bruce Anderson said that while the precise cause of death was not clear as of Tuesday afternoon, the patient was positive for COVID-19 and the virus possibly contributed to the man’s death. The patient was only in the hospital for a short time before passing away, Anderson continued.

“We’re sad to lose one of our loved ones in Hawai‘i,” said Lieutenant Governor Josh Green. “We all knew it was coming. We were prepared for this. But our hearts still go out to the family.”

Green added that the fatality is further evidence of the importance of social distancing, particularly to keep kūpuna safe from infection. Current death rates in COVID-19 patients between 75 and 79 years of age is 8%. The current death rate for those with the virus who are over the age of 80 is 14.4%.

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The state erroneously announced that the first coronavirus death took place roughly one week ago but was forced to walk that back after the statement turned out to be false. Anderson said there will be no such issue this time around.

“This was a positive test result,” he said. “We are trying to get a sample that we can reevaluate in our lab just to be sure. We are acting as though this is a positive and there’s no reason to think it’s not at this time.”

The misclassified case from a week ago was a clerical error, Anderson continued. A private lab with no history of false COVID-19 positives conducted the test on the man who was reported dead Tuesday. More information on the case is expected to be released in the coming days.

“We want to be respectful of the family and haven’t interrogated them or the healthcare provider at this time,” Anderson said.

DOH also announced Tuesday the first positive result from its community surveillance testing program, which began March 1. The program tests random swabs from patients statewide who reported to their doctors with flu-like symptoms but tested negative for the flu virus. The point of the program is to identify community spread of COVID-19.

Anderson said 360 samples had been tested and returned since the program began. The positive result, which was sampled around March 20 and announced Tuesday, is consistent with private lab testing, Anderson continued, and “reinforces that there is limited and localized community spread of the virus on O‘ahu.”

Keeping informed

New functions on the DOH website now show the current epidemic curve for COVID-19 in Hawai‘i as well as virus mapping to highlight the areas of residence of people who have tested positive for the virus.

Anderson warned, however, that while the curve is a helpful tracking tool, it lacks accuracy as a predictive tool. He cautioned the public to regard the current stage of infection as the beginning of the curve, which is likely to grow larger over at least the next few weeks.

He also said that while virus mapping is valuable, it’s not necessarily an indicator of where people were infected with the virus, only where infected people reside. He said there is not an elevated risk to people living in areas where cases are more concentrated. As of Sunday, Kailua-Kona and the surrounding areas were home to the most cases of coronavirus on the Big Island.

Anderson said both virus mapping and the epidemic curve graphics will be updated daily.

As of Tuesday, there were 224 presumptive positives or confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, with 20 new cases reported overnight. All new cases Tuesday were adults. Nineteen were residents and one was a visitor.

To date, 58 people in Hawai‘i have been released from isolation. That includes three who recovered within the last 24 hours.

The death toll in the United State surpassed 3,000 on Tuesday, with predictions coming from the White House that coronavirus-related fatalities would likely reach between 100,000 and 240,000 nationwide before the pandemic is through.

Max Dible
Max Dible is a reporter for Big Island Now. He will also serve in a news capacity 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 with the Iowa State Daily and KURE 88.5 FM, respectively, in Ames, 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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