State health officials say two of Hawaii’s new coronavirus cases had no travel history

  • Courtesy photo State epidemiologist Sarah Park and state Health Director Bruce Anderson speak Friday during a conference call about the COVID-19 coronavirus.

  • Courtesy photo A test team at the Bay Clinic’s COVID-19 drive-through testing site.

  • Courtesy photo The Bay Clinic’s new COVID-19 drive-through test site in Hilo

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state climbed by 11 on Friday as the virus appears to have begun spreading through community members.

During a conference call Friday afternoon, state Health Director Bruce Anderson said the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases jumped to 37 just one day after the total climbed from 16 to 26. No new cases have been confirmed on the Big Island.

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Of the new 11 cases — 10 in Honolulu and one on Kauai — two were individuals with no recent travel history, indicating that the virus is now being transmitted between individuals in the Hawaii community.

“They either did not travel or did not have any association with anyone who has traveled as far as we know at this time,” said state epidemiologist Sarah Park. “So it does suggest that we have at least localized community transmission. These two persons are not associated with each other and are on the island of Oahu … the closer people are together, the higher the risk.”

The remaining nine new cases Friday had recent travel history, and included one child, which Park said serves as a reminder that, while the elderly are generally more susceptible to COVID-19, anybody can be infected.

Anderson said a random sampling of 185 individuals throughout the state turned up no cases of COVID-19, suggesting the virus’ presence is still not widespread. But based on the increase in cases this week, he warned that the number will continue to rise.

“I would anticipate that, now that we’ve seen some community spread, it is going to continue to be a problem and continue to be occurring in increasing frequency as we go forward,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he discussed possible measures to mitigate the situation with state officials, including the possibility of imposing a mandatory two-week quarantine on all travelers to the state; New Zealand and Australia have imposed such a policy, which Anderson called a “wise move.” Such an action, however, would require significant commitment: every visitor would be required to comply and be registered in order to be effective.

Similarly, he said, a statewide lockdown might not be the appropriate reaction based on the current situation.

“I think a lot’s going to depend on how seriously people take this situation,” Anderson said. “If people continue to go to the beach and get together as they have been, then we’ll have no choice but to impose more stringent and draconian measures.”

But a lockdown is an attractive option for some: the entire Big Island delegation to the state Legislature filed a letter to Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim urging him to order a 15-day shutdown of county facilities, schools and all travel from the island, as well as a mandatory 15-day quarantine on all incoming travelers, limiting county work to only essential personnel and an order for all county residents to shelter in place for 15 days.

“As Mayor, you are the only person who has the direct authority to institute these actions,” the letter reads. “As state legislators, we passed and continue to support the delegated authority provided to the counties under Hawaii Revised Statutes (HRS) Chapter 127, which grants you, as mayor, the power to act in emergency situations such as the unprecedented one we face today. The entire Hawaii Island delegation is speaking with one collective voice, and we implore you to take immediate action for the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the County of Hawaii.”

Kim argued he actually doesn’t have the authority to order many of those things, closing travel from the island and quarantining visitors in particular.

“I’m surprised that our senators and representatives, of all people, believe that’s true,” Kim said.

Meanwhile, he said, the county’s mandate is to keep essential services — such as water, electricity, fire and police departments — operating as normal, and it has cut back on non-essential work.

“It’s already being done, we’re just not talking about it that much,” Kim said.

Kim said he and the state’s other county mayors discussed with the governor the pros and cons to closing free travel to and from the state, and said he thinks that course of action would be devastating to the state’s economy. But, even so, it has been favorably received by the mayors.

“I understand everyone’s anxiety, but I frankly think the Big Island has been well ahead of the curve on this,” Kim said.

Anderson and Park implored residents to maintain social distancing and avoid contact with others. Anderson also advised sheltering residents to maintain their mental health by continuing to eat balanced meals, exercise where possible and speak with others about their fears, which, he added, are normal under the circumstances.

In further coronavirus news:

• COVID-19 testing sites are available at the Hilo Medical Center and the Queen’s North Hawaii Community Hospital, and as of Friday, the Bay Clinic is redirecting patients to a drive-through testing site at its administration building at 450 Kilauea Ave. in Hilo.

The Bay Clinic site tests for all viruses and infections, including COVID-19, strep throat and the flu. Six of the Bay Clinic’s seven locations will redirect patients for whom the test has been prescribed to the Hilo site; patients can also still be tested at the clinic’s Ka‘u location.

All sites continue to only test patients who have been prescribed the test by a physician, in order to conserve testing supplies.

A new screening and testing site will open Monday at the Puna Community Medical Center in Pahoa. No physician’s order will be required because patients will be screened on-site before being tested. The site will be open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekdays.

Volunteers are also needed at Hilo Medical Center, which, along with Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua in Honokaa, is also seeking emergency hires in order to meet the anticipated need for increased COVID-19 care.

• The U.S. Small Business Association has announced the availability of federal disaster loans for Hawaii’s small businesses and nonprofit organizations. A full story will appear in either Sunday’s or Monday’s edition of the Tribune-Herald.

• After switching to online-only courses for the remainder of the spring semester earlier this week, the University of Hawaii has closed all 10 of its campuses to everyone save for current students and employees.

• The state Department of Education received approval to cancel federally mandated testing for school year 2019-20. This includes Smarter Balanced Assessments in English Language Arts/Literacy and mathematics; Hawaii State Science Assessments and Biology 1 end of course exams; Hawaii State Alternate Assessments; and the Kaiapuni Assessment of Educational Outcomes.

“The closure of public-facing facilities and establishment of a process for employees to work remotely from home are in effect,” said a statement from the university. “Employees who are working on campus and students who come to campus or reside in student housing are instructed to practice social distancing.”

• Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remains open, but more areas within the park are closed following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. The lanai of the Kilauea Visitor Center is now also closed, although restrooms are open.

The other areas in the park that are closed as of Friday include the Hawaii Pacific Parks Association store, the Mauna Loa Summit Cabin, the Red Hill Cabin, Volcano House Hotel and its interior restaurants, the Namakanipaio Campground and the Volcano Art Center Gallery. All events and guided programs are also canceled.

All previously open trails and overlooks remain open, as does the Kahuku Unit and most of the park’s backcountry. The Kilauea Military Camp is open with reduced services for authorized patrons.

Two other national parks on the island — Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau and Kaloko-Honokohau, respectively located in Honaunau and Kailua-Kona — are closed until further notice. All scheduled events in each part are canceled.

• Hawaii County launched a COVID-19 informational website at hawaiicounty.gov/coronavirus. The site features frequently asked questions, updated state and islandwide infection statistics and links to global maps of the disease’s spread. However, the site so far only updates its numbers twice per day; more frequently updated statistics can be found at the state Department of Health’s website.

• The Department of Public Safety said Friday none of its inmates have met “person under investigation” criteria for COVID-19. No visitors except inmates’ attorneys are currently allowed at any facility, including Saguaro Correctional Facility in Arizona. The inmate work-furlough program is indefinitely suspended, and parole hearings are suspended through at least April 3.

• All commercial ocean and trail tours and all state parks are closed until further notice.

“Many people are not practicing the recommended social distancing protocols, so it’s become necessary for us to take these extraordinary steps to help encourage the 6-foot separation between people recommended by Gov. Ige, the CDC and our experts at the DOH,” said Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. “It is hoped that every commercial permit holder and all local residents and visitors will abide by these closures in the spirit of flattening the spread of the coronavirus.”

• The county announced that all beach parks will close today until further notice. All camping, pavilion and use permits associated with “all County of Hawaii beach and shoreline parks, public shoreline access easements, public open space shoreline and coastal lands, undeveloped county shoreline and coastal lands” are also canceled.

• Basically Books in Hilo is closed indefinitely as of March 21. Readings by local authors and mini concerts by local musicians are also suspended until further notice.

• All Foodland stores — which includes Foodland, Foodland Farms and Sack N Save — will adjust store hours to open from 6 a.m.-9 p.m. daily starting Monday. Kupuna shopping hours will continue to be in effect from 6-7 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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Reporter John Burnett contributed to this article.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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