Big Isle hospitals take action following China outbreak

  • Medical staff in protective outfits wait Tuesday at the entrance of a clinic for fever patients and patients from Wuhan in Fuyang, China. (Chinatopix via AP)

As the United States and the world continues to monitor the outbreak of a new respiratory virus, Big Island hospitals are at the ready for any potential cases.

The outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus has been caused by a previously unidentified coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.


Chad Shibuya, director of infection control and prevention at Hilo Medical Center, said it’s “kind of alarming how quickly the case count is growing.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the disease accounted for at least 132 deaths and more than 6,000 reported cases, according to the Associated Press.

Common coronaviruses in humans usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms of the newly identified virus include mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough and difficulty breathing. At this time, the CDC believes symptoms might appear 2-14 days after exposure.

According to Hilo Medical Center, the hospital’s emergency management team met Jan. 22 to discuss the virus and “ensure situational awareness among key departments, each having implemented preparedness strategies.”

Shibuya said HMC has a screening system in place where patients entering the hospital are asked if they have traveled outside of the United States in the past 30 days, in addition to why the patient is seeking care.

If there’s respiratory illness and a travel history to China, “that case would set off an alert for us to process them a little differently,” he said.

Those patients would be given a mask to wear and taken to an airborne isolation room where they would be held until the illness was ruled out or confirmed.

At that point, the hospital would reach out to the sate Department of Health to see if it was a likely coronavirus case.

Chief Nursing Officer Arthur Sampaga Jr. said pandemic infections are No. 4 on the HMC emergency management team’s Hazardous Vulnerable Analysis list, which prioritizes risks on the island.

It is “one of our priorities where, when we do our planning … and exercises, (we) do practice for a pandemic disease here at the hospital,” he explained.

According to the information provided by HMC, the hospital’s Infection Prevention Department is receiving updates from the CDC and DOH, and the emergency management team receives updates from the Healthcare Association of Hawaii’s Hawaii Healthcare Emergency Management.

Personnel are prepared to care for all types of infectious patients, HMC said, and staff are updated with new information during daily safety briefings, mass emails, nurse manager meetings, daily blogs and huddles.

“I think it’s important to not panic at this point,” Shibuya said.

As of Tuesday, just five cases have been confirmed by the CDC in the United States, and Shibuya said the DOH contends the risk in Hawaii is considered “relatively low.”

However, HMC is “starting to see disruptions in the supply chain,” he said.

According to the hospital, HMC Materials Management is monitoring its supply of personal protective equipment, but HMC is currently fully equipped and supplied.

Elsewhere on the Big Island, officials at both Kona Community Hospital and North Hawaii Community Hospital have said clinical personnel are also prepared to treat patients with suspected coronavirus, West Hawaii Today recently reported.

Prevention officials at the Kealakekua-based Kona Community Hospital said it works closely with the DOH, and its frontline staff members have reviewed guidelines and best practices, as well as the current CDC recommendations for monitoring and containing potential infection.

North Hawaii Community Hospital, a Queen’s Health Systems facility, also is following the protocols, and encouraging routine travel screening.

While there have been no reported cases of the disease in Hawaii, the DOH continues to monitor the situation closely.

Health officials also have encouraged protection against another virus — influenza.

“The flu is dangerous and also a killer,” Sampaga said, adding that individuals should “remain vigilant and get a flu shot.

“The average person is much more likely to be impacted, even in a serious way, by influenza rather than the coronavirus,” Shibuya said.

Meanwhile, China has cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities to prevent people from leaving and spreading the virus further. The lockdown has trapped more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed, the Associated Press reports.

Countries like the United States, Japan and others, have been evacuating their citizens from Wuhan.

USA Today reported Tuesday that the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu was among the 20 airports that will begin screening for the coronavirus.

“Scott Pauley of the CDC confirmed to USA Today that the 20 airports align with the center’s existing quarantine stations that cover all 50 states and Puerto Rico,” the news outlet reported.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara said the airport is one of 20 airports in the country that already has a CDC Quarantine Station enforcing foreign quarantine regulations, but there are no direct flights from Wuhan to Hawaii.

The DOT Airports Division “will continue to monitor communication and developments with the CDC regarding the evolving situation,” he said.

For more information about the coronavirus, visit


West Hawaii Today editor Chelsea Jensen contributed to this story.

Email Stephanie Salmons at

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