Mostly virus-free Kauai hit by pandemic after trip resumes – trip

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On Hawaii’s rural island of Kauai, where sprawling white sand beaches and dramatic seaside mountains attract visitors from all over the world, native residents spent the first seven months of the pandemic sheltered from the viral storm.

Early and aggressive native measures coupled with a strictly enforced statewide trip quarantine kept Kauai’s 72,000 residents mostly healthy — the island had only 61 known coronavirus cases from March through September. But on October 15, the state launched a pre-travel testing program to reignite Hawaii’s decimated tourism economy.

Kauai then went from having no active infections at all in the first a part of October to no less than 84 new cases in the ensuing seven weeks. The surge seeded community transmission and led to the island’s first — and so far only — Covid-19 death: Ron Clark, who worked for decades as a tour driver.

Despite Hawaii’s cautious effort at reopening that allowed travellers who tested negative for Covid-19 before they flew to the state to sidestep quarantine rules, the Kauai spike illustrates the difficulty of preserving public health — even on an lonely island — when economic recovery relies on trip. Kauai officials have determined the price of vacationing in paradise, for now, is too high.

Clark got Covid-19 in November and died approximately 10 days later. At age 84, he worked until he contracted the disease and most recently shuttled airline pilots and crew to and from the airport. Airline crews are exempt from the state’s testing and quarantine rules.

The day after Clark’s death, Kauai officials said they would opt out of the state’s testing program and require visitors to again quarantine for two weeks if or not they test negative for Covid-19 before arriving.

Kauai officials say the single-test scheme did not do enough to offer protection to the people who live there. With only nine ICU beds and 14 ventilators, the island’s health care system could quickly transform overwhelmed by a large outbreak, said Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami.

Seeking to prevent one of these scenario, Kawakami proposed a mandatory second test for all passengers after arrival. His plan would have included a short quarantine while people awaited their second result.

“We think having a negative test is a superb prerequisite to getting on a plane,” Kawakami said. But “once you land on Kauai … (travellers) will have to be in a position to sit down and cool off for three days.”

But the proposal used to be turned down by state officials, with Democratic Gov. David Ige saying the plan would must be in the community funded and administered.

After the Kauai surge, the state Branch of Health traced many of the island’s October and November cases to returning residents and tourists who brought the virus in despite the pre-flight testing program.

JoAnn Yukimura, a former Kauai mayor and friend of Ron Clark’s for more than three decades, said his death shook the community and that she constantly thinks “of him being alone at the hospital. … How isolated it should have been to die.”

“Ron’s death might seem to outsiders like one of these small matter,” Yukimura said. But it “hit us tough because we on Kauai haven’t transform inured to death and sickness — and we don’t ever wish to get that way.”

Before the pandemic, Hawaii welcomed approximately 30,000 tourists day by day who spent almost $18 billion final year.

In March, when the state’s two-week quarantine rule used to be imposed, tourist arrivals and revenue plummeted. Visitor numbers have since increased with the testing program, but only to approximately a third of pre-pandemic levels.

On Kauai, 57-year-old Edwin Pascua has been unemployed from his hotel bellhop job since March and worries approximately having contact with infected travellers — but would reasonably be working.

“Whether there are safeguards in place, that would lessen everything,” he said. “I wouldn’t be as afraid.”

Pascua and his wife, who works at the same hotel, have gotten by with unemployment benefits but he knows people who “haven’t even gotten a check yet, one check from unemployment.”

Despite the new infection surge and record deaths on the U.S. mainland, top Hawaii officials insist that the pre-travel testing program works.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green said. “Hawaii has the lowest rate of Covid in the country as a result of this program presently.”

Hawaii enjoys fairly low hospitalization and death rates, but health experts said as a result of the way Covid-19 accumulates in the body through the years, second tests for travellers would weed out more infection.

Dr. Kapono Chong-Hanssen, a Local Hawaiian physician who runs a Kauai community health center, said the unmarried test requirement “goes against the medical evidence.”

“We’re starting to see these big holes in the plan and I think it’s a matter of time before we pay the price,” he said.

There have been more than 380 travel-related infections in Hawaii since the testing program used to be launched, according to the state health branch.

The real number of infections a number of the general population is believed to be far higher than what has been reported. Many asymptomatic people, who can still spread the disease, do not get tested.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the school of public health at Brown University, said trip restrictions for most places at this point in the pandemic are “either counter-productive or fairly vain” and can give a false sense of security.

“There is evidence that international trip bans are helpful at slowing things down,” Jha said. But “unless you seal your country off totally and do it early, it’s pretty hard to use that as a strategy.”

Kauai, lonely by the ocean and in large part secure by early restrictions, had done just that.

When the original quarantine rule used to be in effect, Kauai residents went to restaurants, schools were open and locals spent their money locally. That might happen again with Kauai’s reinstatement of the quarantine rule amid hopes by locals that the community will remain healthy.

Trip “introduces a continual stream of new infections,” said Dr. Janet Berreman, Kauai’s officer for the state health branch.

“This tsunami, whether you’ll, of disease,” she said, “has marched across the mainland, from east to west. We’re just a bit farther west across a body of water. But everybody wants to come here for the holidays.”

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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