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COVID-19 Outbreak at Maui Jail Compounded by Staffing Shortages, Contagious Variant

Casey Harlow / HPR

The Maui Community Correctional Center is seeing a significant drop in COVID-19 cases after nearly two months of trying to contain the virus. But there are concerns that staff shortages and the presence of a more contagious strain of the coronavirus may jeopardize the progress made thus far.

The number of active COVID-19 cases at the Maui jail has dropped from 90 down to 15 since the outbreak began in February. County health officials say at least a dozen of the active cases have contracted a more contagious strain of COVID-19 known as the California variant.

“It is critically urgent and important that something be done and soon,” says Sarah Hofstadter with Hale Hawai?i, a Maui-based group that’s pushing for more proactive action to combat COVID-19.

She urged the Oversight Commission on Hawai?i Correctional Systems to investigate the public safety department’s handling of the outbreak.

“Because you’re always going to have those situations where the inmates are saying one thing and the administration is saying another, and it takes an independent, unbiased body to go in there and collect the facts, and to try to do something about it if something is happening,” says Hofstadter.

State Public Safety Director Max Otani says he’s open to a site visit by the commission, but he assures them the agency is doing all it can to contain the virus, including vaccinations of an estimated 54 percent of the inmates, and daily meetings with county health officials.

The biggest challenge he says is overcrowding. The Maui jail currently houses a little more than 300 inmates. The combination of individual cells and dormitories is designed to hold about 200. To make matters worse, Otani says mandatory staff training on O?ahu has meant fewer guards availabe on Maui.

“Right now because of staff shortage, we are required to close some of the dorms,” says Otani, “We anticipate the staffing situation will be enhanced in a few weeks.”

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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