Doctor tests positive for COVID-19 in Ka‘u; Traveling physician had contact with 11 patients during two days

A traveling doctor who worked briefly at Ka‘u Hospital and Rural Health Clinic tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, administrator Merilyn Harris has confirmed.

Harris said the doctor had worked at the facility’s rural health clinic for two days and tested positive on July 6 after not feeling well.

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As soon as the results were in, Harris said the state Department of Health was notified, and administrators began identifying people the doctor might have had contact with.

According to Harris, the doctor was in contact with 11 patients over the two days at the clinic, but both the doctor and patients were wearing masks as required in the facility.

Harris said the names of other employees who had contact with the doctor also were reported to the DOH.

All exposed clinic employees were tested five days after the potential exposure, and all tests were negative, Harris said. They were set to be re-tested Wednesday, the 13th day after exposure. Those test results should be available today or Friday.

As a precaution, the 11 patients also were tested, and those tests were negative. Those individuals can be re-tested if they choose.

According to Harris, the doctor was new to the island, but she declined to say where the physician had traveled from. There is a quarantine exemption for health care personnel which allowed the doctor to work, she said.

Harris said the facility was in the process of implementing a program to require a negative COVID-19 test for new employees and contractors before they start, but it wasn’t fully implemented when the doctor arrived.

“It’s just unfortunate,” Harris said. “We were 99% there. (The doctor) was that one piece that happened. We’re just very grateful there were no negative outcomes other than the anxiety we caused some people, and we’re very sorry for that.”

That testing plan in now fully in place.

The East Hawaii Region of the Hawaii Health Care Systems Corp. — which includes Ka‘u Hospital, Hilo Medical Center and Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua in Honokaa, as well as a network of clinics in East Hawaii — tested more than 1,500 employees at the beginning of June, all of which came back negative.

Random surveillance testing for employees should begin soon, but those plans are still being developed, HMC spokeswoman Elena Cabatu said.

Additionally, the health care system now is working to strengthen policies and procedures regarding employees who travel outside of the state.

Currently, employees can voluntarily be tested after traveling outside of Hawaii and before returning work, although physicians must have a negative test after traveling, she said.

“But as with any policy in this age of COVID, we are working to strengthen those policies,” Cabatu said. “Our region is working with the union to require a test upon returning to work, and we think that’s a win-win for our staff, our patients, especially our community as well.”

Additionally, anyone entering any East Hawaii Region hospital or clinic must undergo daily screening and temperature checks, and must wear a mask.

Along with those efforts, no-visitor policies remain in place in Ka‘u and Honokaa.

Harris said the doctor in Ka‘u had no involvement with patients in the hospital itself, and will not be returning to the clinic or any one of the East Hawaii facilities. She didn’t elaborate.

For her part, Harris is confident the hospital will not employ someone who has not tested negative for COVID-19 again.

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“We’re all vulnerable to community spread, but we’re making our hospital facility as safe as it can possible be.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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