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Big Island Grapples with Surge in COVID-19 Cases

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Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
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Big Island health officials are grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases in Hawai'i County.

Hawai?i County is seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases on the Hilo side of the Big Island. State health authorities say its community spread and that testing and contact tracing are aggressively being pursued.

Hawai?i County Civil Defense reported 63 active cases Tuesday morning, including 10 individuals currently being hospitalized for COVID-19. Eric Honda, head of the Hawai?i District Health Office, says investigations are ongoing.

“What we are seeing through our investigations is multiple cases being associated with gatherings whether in a work environment (co-workers eating lunch together) or social environment (funerals, birthday parties, camping trips),” says Honda.

One COVID-19 cluster has been reported at a Hawaiian language immersion charter school in Keaukaha. Ka ‘Umeke K??eo Public Charter School reported one positive case last Monday and by the end of the week, that cluster had grown to infect eight staff members.

Keaukaha community leader Patrick Kahawaiola?a said the news hit too close to home. Many of the school’s staff and students come from Hawaiian homestead communities like Keaukaha and Pana?ewa.

“I?m concerned. You gotta look at the community right. We get plenty kupuna. Many of them live alone or the grandchildren go home stay with them,” says Kahawaiola?a, “If the haum?na (students) from the school, that’s where they going.”

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Credit Ka Umeke Kaeo PCS
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Ka Umeke Kaeo PCS
In a letter dated August 21, 2020, Nohea Nahale-a, Po'okumu of Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo Public Charter School in Keaukaha shares the news of eight positive COVID-19 cases among school staff.

Nohea Nahale-a, Po?okumu (Principal) of Ka ?Umeke K??eo, sent a letter Friday informing the community of the cases at the school. Students had not returned to campus and have been engaged in distance learning. The K-11 school has closed its campuses until further notice.

Testing was made available in Keaukaha Monday morning, where scores of cars were lined up outside Kawananakoa Gym. Kahawaiola?a anticipates test results will yield more information.

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Credit Lehua Waipa Ah Nee
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Lehua Waipa Ah Nee
Community members take advantage of free COVID-19 testing in Keaukaha on Monday.

Hawai?i County Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy says community spread in strong Native Hawaiian communities like Keaukaha may need a uniquely Hawaiian intervention.

“Kumu hula including one of Keaukaha’s own Robert Ke?ano Ka?upu are calling for a time of kapu (an observance of restrictions),” says Lee Loy, “This serves us with a reminder that kapu is not forbidden for the sake of being forbidden – kapu is about protecting that which is precious.”

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Credit Ken's Pancake House
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Ken's Pancake House

Lee Loy is urging her county council colleagues to push for large-scale COVID-19 testing on the Big Island.

“When it starts to impact our loved ones, just one or two degrees away from us – this is what it’ll take for people to take seriously,” says Lee Loy.

Multiple local businesses on the east side have also temporarily closed after disclosing cases of employees who have tested positive for the virus. These include Ken’s Pancake House, the Hilo courthouse, Hilo Ben Franklin Crafts, and Leung’s Chop Suey House.

District health officer Eric Honda says health officials aren’t required to disclose specific businesses where positive cases are identified, but that the businesses themselves are free to share that information.

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Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
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Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Big Island Mayor Harry Kim

In the last three weeks, COVID-19 cases on the Big Island rose from one case to 63. Mayor Harry Kim says up until then, the county had a good handle on the pandemic with hospitalizations kept at minimum.

“We had only one case (of hospitalization) for literally months, and what we have here today, we have 10 (hospitalizations) at the Hilo Medical Center,” says Kim.

Kim says he’s reviewing COVID-19 prevention policies for any potential changes. Most of the new cases have been traced to Hilo-based gatherings where people disregarded prevention protocols such as wearing a mask. But, Kim says, the kuleana lies with Big Island residents.

“This is a community issue and it will take community involvement for us to take care of it,” says Kim.

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Credit Hilo Medical Center
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Hilo Medical Center
There are currently 10 patients being treated for COVID-19 at the Hilo Medical Center.

Hilo Medical Center CEO Dan Brinkman says community spread appears to be the culprit for the COVID-19 patients in his care.

“We?ve been tracking our patients and there are five or six different locations and background that makes up these patients,” says Brinkman, “And that seems to be somewhat logical because we loosened up restrictions and certainly a lot of the community has gathered and spent social time together. I think this uptick is a result of loosening those restrictions.”

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Credit Hawaii County Civil Defense
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Hawaii County Civil Defense
COVID-19 testing is being made available on the Big Island.

Brinkman says the Big Island has the benefit of expericing this surge later in the pandemic, giving the hospital months to prepare. He says the Hilo hospital has the ability to surge capacity if needed with an additional 46 hospital beds, but that is highly dependent on staffing.

“It takes trained people certainly to care for those folks,” says Brinkman, “We can experience some staff shortages if these numbers continue to grow.”

County health officials are advising Big Island residents to follow CDC guideliness such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. For information on COVID-19 testing sites, visit Hawai?i County Civil Defense’s website.

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