New Cases Surge On Oahu, Leaders Warn Of Renewed Restrictions

Jul 8, 2020

Hawaii recorded its largest single-day increase in new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. 

41 new infections were confirmed statewide on Tuesday, with 93% being found on Oahu. The spike comes several weeks after the reopening of high-risk businesses, like bars and gyms, on June 19th.

Following the announcement of the recent spike in cases, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says there is widespread circulation of the virus in communities across Oahu.

“All over the island, on all sides of the island, no one is escaping the spread of this virus,” Caldwell said, enumerating confirmed infections in Urban Honolulu, Waipahu, Kapalama, Kaneohe, Kailua, Waimanalo, Waianae, and Ewa Beach.

The second-term mayor blamed the spike in cases on the failure of residents to appropriately wear masks and physically distance. 

“We need to follow the mandates, Caldwell urged. “So much of it depends on wearing a face covering and physical distancing. Not enough of that is happening right now, which is why we’re seeing this spread.”

The July 7th report from the State Department of Health enumerating confirmed new cases.
Credit Hawaii Department of Health

The City and County’s latest guidelines require the wear of a mask inside any indoor public spaces and in outdoor settings where social distancing is not possible.

Caldwell added that limiting the number of new cases will be critical to the continued reopening of economic activity on Oahu and across the state, which Caldwell described as experiencing a “depression rate” of unemployment. The statewide unemployment rate topped 20% during the worst period of the lockdown.

The mayor said his administration would be evaluating the situation over the coming days and making difficult decisions on how to proceed.

Difficult decisions could include ending the newly created no-vehicle hours on main streets in Waikiki and Chinatown. There is also the possibility of renewed restrictions on high-risk indoor activities, which will worsen the island’s economic pain.

In a sober tone, the normally upbeat Caldwell revealed that he was informed by the state Department of Health that if the daily rate of new infections remains at the level seen on Tuesday, it could prohibit the ability of the state’s contact tracers to effectively track down others potentially exposed.

That kind of tracing is widely viewed as essential to containing the pandemic. The health department already has 30 contact tracers on staff, with hundreds more being trained.

Hawaii's infection curve of daily new cases, from February until now. 73% of cases have been on Oahu.
Credit Hawaii Department of Health

State Health Director Bruce Anderson called the new infection trend disturbing, but said he doesn’t believe there is any imminent threat of exceeding his department’s contact tracing ability.

“We have increased surge staffing in the department and are in the process of hiring our newly trained contact tracers. I do not believe in the short run we have any significant issues associated with contact tracing,” Anderson said at the governor’s daily press conference.

He added that even robust contact tracing is no substitute for wearing a mask and urged residents to adhere to the guidelines issued by authorities.

There may not be a short-term issue, but if new infections remain at the current level for an extended period of time, it could spell trouble for the islands’ ability to deal with the pandemic.

Mark Mugiishi, a medical doctor and CEO of health insurer HMSA, recently noted that a new case rate at the level seen on Tuesday is one of the warning signs experts use to evaluate the severity of current spread.

“If the number of case are doubling over sequential weeks, that's worrisome. If we're getting into the 40s and 50s that's worrisome,” Mugiishi explained, citing analysis done by a team from the hospital network Hawaii Pacific Health.

According to Mugiishi, a rate of 40 to 50 new cases per day, maintained over multiple weeks, could put the stability of Hawaii’s hospital system at risk.

Officials, particularly Lt. Gov. Josh Green, have repeatedly emphasized that current use of the hospital system remains at safe levels; with approximately 50% of intensive care beds and almost 80% of ventilators statewide still available.