COVID-19 Positive Individuals Visited Big Island on Business Trip, State Says
Tuesday marked the most infectious day of the COVID-19 pandemic in Hawai‘i since it initially struck, with the state Department of Health reporting 41 positive test results statewide.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park, in a Tuesday afternoon press conference addressing the surge, noted one relevant cluster of cases involving a business trip to the Big Island.
Details on the cluster were sparse and did not include the name of the business that planned the trip, the location from which the group traveled to the Big Island, or how many people were part of the group. Park did say that the interisland travelers in question visited both sides of Hawai‘i Island and that a few have already tested positive for COVID-19. The rest are currently under self-quarantine.
Based on the timing of the business trip and the timing of positive coronavirus diagnoses — neither of which were specified by health officials in their statements or answers to specific questions Tuesday — Park said it appears the infected individuals contracted the disease either during travel or while on the Big Island. However, it is possible the disease originated off-island.
“We’re not certain exactly where exposure happened,” Park said. “The big question is how they were exposed.”
She added that the investigation is ongoing and that as of Tuesday, DOH was not aware of any Big Island residents who were exposed as a result of the interisland business trip. Park said contact tracers continue “aggressively looking” for any potential exposure in Hawai‘i County.
Officials’ response strategy to the news of 41 new cases across the islands in a single day was essentially just to address the information publicly, as no meaningful changes to current policies were announced or intimated by Park, Gov. David Ige, or DOH Director Bruce Anderson.
“The number of cases is manageable right now,” Ige said. “We are monitoring and the state is well prepared.”
“We expected this.”
Through their statements and answers to questions, Tuesday’s speakers continued attempts to assure the public that all of Hawai‘i’s decisions will be data-driven with the well being of public health functioning as the primary concern. This represents a diversion in philosophy from what is at least the perception of governmental priorities in places like Florida and Texas where cases continue to surge at dangerous, all-time-high levels.
“The state of Hawai‘i did not open early,” Ige asserted.
Hawai‘i remains one of the least infected areas of the country, with some of the lowest case totals and death rates throughout the US. But Anderson said with businesses reopened and activities resumed, residents should expect the current levels of daily infection to continue somewhat consistently.
Still, Anderson cautioned that the increase in numbers is troublesome. A higher percentage of those tested are coming back positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, including more individuals without connections to known cases or clusters, which he added is indicative of greater community spread.
While most of the increased community spread is centralized on O‘ahu, Park said people on all islands must remain vigilant.
“The common theme we’re seeing is people are letting their guards down,” explained Park, adding that the community at large has interpreted the reopening of businesses as an indicator that it’s safe to be together again.
“That’s only partially true,” she continued.
Wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing remain vital, particularly with people who are not part of an individual’s regular bubble. Seeing friends again is only as safe as each individual makes it, Park said.
Clusters between 2 and 15 people have been identified at gyms, in workspaces, and at family gatherings, such as a Father’s Day celebration that continues to produce positive COVID-19 results among attendees.
Part of the problem, Anderson said, is people may believe contact tracing provides more of a safety net than it actually does.
“It should be recognized that contact tracing is a reactionary step and does not substitute for social distancing (or wearing face coverings),” he said.
The governor addressed questions about pushing back the Aug. 1 date currently set to allow travelers the chance to earn exemptions from mandatory quarantine by producing a negative COVID-19 test. However, he did not indicate the state had any plans to change that date as of Tuesday.
He also answered questions about re-implementing restrictions on bars and gymnasiums statewide, which he noted Monday were part of discussions between himself and county mayors
“It really is about every single entity — every bar, every restaurant, and every business — embracing recommendations and guidelines we’ve issued,” Ige said.
“Some gyms have really implemented good changes in how they do business,” the governor continued, noting the spacing out of equipment, enhanced sanitation practices, and limiting the number of people allowed inside at one time. “There are others that are lax.”
He reminded all businesses to engage in telework whenever possible and said the state has asked them all to rethink the best ways to keep employees and customers safe when conducting in-person transactions.
The state’s record COVID-19 case total prior to Tuesday occurred on April 3, when 34 cases of the virus were reported. If activities and public behaviors carry on as they have, such daily totals can be expected consistently for a long time to come.
“We’re probably not even in the middle of the marathon,” Park said. “(It’s) still early. The disease activity is a reminder of that.”
Officials shied away from putting a specific number on case counts and/or hospital capacity at which they would begin rethinking their current strategies.
But Anderson said the most disconcerting data would come in the form of a gradual, steady increase in cases. Such a trend would mean Hawai‘i is not in control of COVID-19 spread and is not managing identified cases appropriately, which is what he said is happening in states like Texas and Florida.