Big Island Coronavirus Updates

Cruise Ships Schedule to Port Again Amid COVID Surge, but Officials Say They’re Ready

By Tom Hasslinger
January 7, 2022, 1:34 PM HST
* Updated January 7, 5:08 PM
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Mayor Mitch Roth is fully recovered from COVID-19, which he came down with over the holiday break despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. He told Big Island Now he’s “back on my feet” and has returned to work.

Hawai‘i is in the midst of a surge in new COVID-19 cases, having set a new daily record this week with 508 cases on Thursday, Jan. 6, because of the highly transmissible Omicron variant that’s flared through the islands since landing on O‘ahu last month.

Cruise ships are scheduled to return to Hawai‘i Island this month, bringing with them thousands of passengers to the Big Island’s ports and shores.

Does the formula seem dangerous?

Experts are on alert, but not overly concerned, they said, as Big Island hospitals have the plans, resources and experience to handle the volume of new cases, even should they rise.

“I think we’ll need more beds but we’ll figure it out,” said Elena Cabatu, spokeswoman for Hilo Medical Center. “We have to.”

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Eleven travel nurses are heading toward Hilo to add to the workforce at the medical center, but even more staffing help will be coming through a Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, program specifically aimed at bolstering medical personnel during the pandemic. Those details haven’t been completed, but whatever the amount turns out to be, it will help the current staff on hand, Cabatu said.

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One thing working in hospitals’ favor, at least so far, is that the Omicron variant doesn’t seem to have as severe symptoms as the other variants. It can seem more like a cold to some people who have it rather than the flu. In fact, of the 18 people hospitalized at HMC on Thursday for COVID, half of those were incidental patients, which means they went to the hospital with other concerns or symptoms and learned after testing that they also had COVID-19.

“They’re actually not exhibiting any symptoms,” Cabatu said, adding that wasn’t nearly as common with the other strains, especially the Delta variant.

Judy Donovan, spokeswoman at Kona Community Hospital, said Friday afternoon that almost all of the 17 people at the hospital in Kealakekua with COVID-19 are incidental patients. KCH today re-established its COVID unit at the hospital in response to the increased numbers. That unit had been closed for the last three weeks from lack of demand. Kona hospital has, however, requested four additional emergency room staff to help with the workload as the case numbers increase and as it waits for the FEMA agreement for additional staffing to finalize.

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“We are prepared,” Donovan said.

It’s not to say the latest variant is a walk in the park for patients. Two COVID-19 patients at HMC are in the ICU ward and on Friday, the state reported three new deaths due to the virus out of the 3,586 new cases, along with 26 persons hospitalized.

Half of the COVID patients at HMC have been vaccinated, too. The emergency department is seeing around a high of 130-150 patients per day that include 25-35 COVID-positive patients per day who test positive in the community and come to HMC mainly for antibody monoclonal treatment. Very few patients are admitted out of these visits.

But the sheer volume of people the virus is infecting will put a strain on resources, even if only a fraction of the people who are infected actually require it, Cabatu pointed out. The medical center has high census protocols ready to implement should the demand for beds increase. High census protocols are plans to accommodate a need in additional beds and medical care, which is what the hospital put in place during the worst of the Delta-variant days.

Big Island’s population is expected to swell in a couple of weeks, too, at least for a few hours.

On Tuesday, the State of Hawai‘i announced that it had reached a port agreement with NCL and Carnival cruise ships that allows for their return to shores around the state. According to the state’s Department of Transportation and the Hawaii Port Call website, cruise ships are scheduled to return to Hilo and Kona next week.

The Grand Princess, with 3,006 guests, is scheduled to land in Hilo at 8 a.m. Jan. 11.

A representative at HDOT on O‘ahu told Big Island Now that all ships will port in O‘ahu first as a precaution, as the more populous island has the medical resources needed should any of the ships need copious care once they arrive. Enhanced testing measures and Safe Travel Program protocols are a part of the port and travel agreement as well.

On the Kona side, the first port is scheduled for Jan. 13 when the 594-passenger The World sails in. The port agreement with World is still pending, but is expected to go.

The Pride of America, with 2,300 passengers, was scheduled to port in Kailua-Kona on multiple stops in January, but the company said in an email that due to health and safety concerns, all its Pride of America ships scheduled to embark prior Feb. 26 have been cancelled. That leaves that major cruise line not coming until early March.

Hawai‘i Island Mayor Mitch Roth’s Office issued a press release, titled “Mayor Roth Doubles Down on No Change Stance to COVID Rules,” on Thursday stating that the county isn’t planning to tweak any of its safety protocols despite the increase in cases recently.

The emergency rules outlined in the Roth’s COVID-19 Second Amended Emergency Rule No. 19 allow for social gatherings of 100 outdoors and 10 indoors, as well as full capacity for business operations. 

On Friday, the mayor, who’s fully recovered after having come down with the virus over the holiday break despite being vaccinated and boosted, told Big Island Now that the county will continue to monitor the situation but doesn’t feel a change in rules would prove especially advantageous given the fact that the cases aren’t as severe as prior strains, CDC guidelines are being followed, and hospitals have plans in place to accommodate the numbers.

Friday’s new case numbers were almost half of Thursday’s spike, he pointed out.

“At this time, I don’t see anything we can do that would make a significant difference,” he said.

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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