Hawaii’s most populous island ramps up virus testing

HONOLULU — Hawaii’s most populous island is returning to a stay-at-home order while officials strive to conduct 70,000 COVID-19 tests in two weeks amid a surge in cases.

Oahu, where Honolulu is located, has seen daily triple-digit positive cases in recent weeks, an alarming spike after Hawaii had enjoyed the lowest infection rates in the nation per capita earlier in the pandemic.

With help from the federal government, Oahu officials will conduct mass testing across the island with the goal of testing 5,000 people daily for two weeks, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced Tuesday.

The tests will be free and no symptoms, health insurance or doctor referral will be needed, Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves said.

Starting Thursday, Oahu will be under a stay-at-home order where gyms and dine-in restaurants will be closed. Religious services will be allowed to continue. So-called essential businesses such as grocery stores, banks and childcare facilities can remain open. Most schools have been providing online instruction.

The island’s parks and trails are already closed, while jogging or walking will be allowed on neighborhood sidewalks, Caldwell said.

People will be allowed to leave home to get tested.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams joined Caldwell at Tuesday’s news conference. He noted Hawaii’s Pacific islander and Filipino communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

Pacific islanders make up just 4% of the population but about 30% of positive cases, Adams said, calling the statistic “astounding.”

For a while, Hawaii’s positive rate was less than 5%, but it’s now reaching 10%, Adams said.

“That means you’re at a turning point,” he said. “That means things could get really bad.”

More contact tracers will be hired. A hotel will be used for people who test positive or are in close contact with someone who tested positive and need a place to quarantine, officials said.

As of Tuesday, Oahu had 4,472 of the state’s 4,699 active cases. The spike has included an outbreak at the state’s largest jail.

State Sen. Clarence Nishihara on Tuesday criticized Gov. David Ige’s administration for failing to widely test inmates swiftly enough to prevent the outbreak.

Nishihara said the state Department of Public Safety on Aug. 7 ordered that everyone at the Oahu Community Correctional Center be tested. He questioned why this decision wasn’t made earlier, given concerns about the spread of the virus at the facility.

“It seems like someone dropped the ball from the senior administration, in this case, the governor’s office,” said Nishihara, who is the chairperson of the Senate’s public safety committee.

Nishihara said the first inmate who tested positive was not immediately separated from the general population, allowing COVID-19 to spread. He also said the inmates weren’t required to wear masks.

“I think it’s clearly one of lack of leadership or foresight, all of which has led to what we have today,” Nishihara told reporters during an online news conference.

Toni Schwartz, Department of Public Safety spokesperson, disputed Nishihara’s account of events, saying the first inmate to test positive was in quarantine for newly arrived inmates when he tested positive, and then put in another housing unit away from general inmate population. She said all inmates have been required to wear masks since before the first positive test result.

As of Monday, the Department of Public Safety said 242 inmates and 47 staff members at the jail had tested positive for the disease. The jail housed 968 inmates in early August.

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