Kailua-Kona on the Big Island is seeing its largest spike in COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. It’s shaken a community that had watched the east side bearing the heaviest burden of the virus.
Over 80 residents of Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Island have tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 28. About 30 cases come from a cluster at the University of Nations, an unaccredited Christian university in downtown Kona.
Both students and staff have tested positive, and the campus is now in lockdown. Starting Tuesday, state health officials were testing about 500 students, staff, and close contacts at the university. The testing will continue today, the university said in an update on its website.
Rebecca Villegas, who represents Kona on the Hawaii County Council, has been fielding questions from residents about how the cluster developed.
"I've heard a lot of blame in some capacities and anger from community members for the campus allowing students to fly in...But I do know from speaking with the leadership there that they have been taking staunch precautions with any new students or new people coming to the campus," she said.
Some 375 students and their dependents arrived on campus on Sept 24.
University of Nations spokesman Johnny Gillespie said they were immediately tested and quarantined. Four of the initial tests came back positive. The university says the rest of its positive cases came from community spread.
Last week Tuesday, the university moved its meetings online. Classes were already online because arriving students were still in quarantine.
On Saturday, after the positive cases became known, Mayor Harry Kim asked that all students and staff self-isolate.
Lisa Downing, infection prevention manager at Kona Community Hospital, says the hospital is prepared to handle the spike in COVID.
"We’re ready and we have been ready. Our preparations have really been since February, preparing for just what we are seeing right now, is a surge in patients and a surge in cases," she said.
But Downing says for Kona to avoid a serious outbreak, residents also need to take precautions.
"I’m urging everyone to get their flu shot and get it early. You need to make sure that you are only letting people in your immediate circle, in your home, that live there. As far as gatherings and all those types of things, those should be kept to a minimum," she said.
That might be harder than it sounds. Months of COVID-19 restrictions have left the Kona community feeling burnt out, Villegas said.
"We are constantly in a state of high alert for the next thing that’s going to happen, and it’s causing extreme fatigue," she said.
Downing said fighting fatigue is a challenge for the hospital staff as well.
"It’s not that we don’t think we need to continue to be prepared. It’s that you can only be in the heightened state for so long before you start to relax a little bit...," she said.
"If we keep pressing the envelope, it’s going to keep drumming on. It’s going to get worse, and we’re going to have a hard time keeping things under control. Everyone needs to do their part."
Downing said when cases rose mainly on the east side of the island in August and September, Kona may have fallen into a false sense of security.
"People travel back and forth, people work on both sides of the island, people have family on both sides of the island," she said. "To say what’s happening over there is never going to happen over here, or vice versa, I think we always have to be prepared. We are one island, we are one community."
When it comes to COVID-19, the Big Island just isn’t that big.