Mostly virus-free Kaua‘i hit by pandemic after travel resumes

  • Maryclaire Dale / Associated Press file

    Napali Coast is seen from a helicopter in late 2019.

  • John Marshall / Associated Press fil

    Clouds hang over the Princeville Makai Golf Course near Hanalei Bay in 2018.

  • Caleb Jones / Associated Press file

    A woman walks into the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu amid a quarantine rule that effectively shut down the tourism industry in the state in October.

  • Marco Garcia / Associated Press file

    Governor David Ige speaks at a news conference as Lt. Gov. Josh Green, left, looks on, at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu in October.

  • Suzanne Williams via AP

    Ron Clark’s favorite chair sits empty in Kapa‘a earlier this month. Clark died of COVID-19 on Kaua‘i last month, the first on-island resident virus death.

HONOLULU — On Kaua‘i, where sprawling, white-sand beaches and dramatic seaside mountains attract visitors from around the world, local residents spent the first seven months of the pandemic sheltered from the viral storm.

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

Kaua‘i then went from having no active infections at all in the first part of October to at least 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 Hawai‘i’s cautious effort at reopening that allowed travelers who tested negative for COVID-19 before they flew to the state to sidestep quarantine rules, the Kaua‘i spike illustrates the difficulty of preserving public health — even on an isolated island — when economic recovery relies on travel.

Kaua‘i officials have decided the cost of vacationing in paradise, for now, is too high.

Clark got COVID-19 in November and died about 10 days later. At age 84, he worked until he contracted the disease and most recently shuttled airline pilots and crews to and from Lihu‘e Airport. Airline crews are exempt from the state’s testing and quarantine rules.

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

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

Seeking to prevent such a 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 good prerequisite to getting on a plane,” Kawakami said. But “once you land on Kaua‘i … (travelers) should be able to sit and cool off for three days.”

But the proposal was turned down by state officials, with Democratic Gov. David Ige saying the plan would have to be locally funded and administered.

After the Kaua‘i surge, the state Department of Health traced most 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, former Kaua‘i mayor and friend of 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 lonely it must have been to die.”

“Ron’s death might seem to outsiders like such a small matter,” Yukimura said. But it “hit us hard because we on Kaua‘i haven’t become inured to death and sickness — and we don’t ever want to get that way.”

Before the pandemic, Hawai‘i welcomed about 30,000 tourists daily, who spent nearly $18 billion last year.

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

On Kaua‘i, 57-year-old Edwin Pascua has been unemployed from his hotel bellhop job since March, and worries about having contact with infected travelers — but would rather be working.

“If 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 mainland, top Hawai‘i officials insist that the pre-travel testing program works.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Lt. Gov. Josh Green said. “Hawai‘i has the lowest rate of COVID in the country because of this program right now.”

Hawai‘i enjoys relatively low hospitalization and death rates, but health experts said because of the way COVID-19 accumulates in the body over time, second tests for travelers would weed out more infection.

Dr. Kapono Chong-Hanssen, a Native Hawaiian physician who runs a Kaua‘i community health center, said the single 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 Hawai‘i since the testing program was launched, according to the DOH.

The real number of infections among 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 travel restrictions for most places at this point in the pandemic are “either counter-productive or relatively useless,” and can give a false sense of security.

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

Kaua‘i, isolated by the ocean and largely protected by early restrictions, had done just that.

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

Travel “introduces a continuous stream of new infections,” said Dr. Janet Berreman, district health officer for the DOH Kaua‘i District Health Office.

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

  1. I saw a Vampire once December 21, 2020 12:21 pm Reply

    Bellhop job? There are no tourist around. So that means maybe another year or two before rehire. Did they offer you a cares act stimulus check? Hotels are a ghost town. No visitors. You ever thought about being a cook? The job. If you like cooking, that would do. How’s the life there? Slow or fast. Getting another job always hurts. Especially if the company has company picnics. Missing someone at work can be stressful. The way to look at this is, there’s always something better.

  2. Dennis Marr December 22, 2020 4:24 am Reply

    We love Kuai but certainly feel unwanted at rhis point. Too much uncertainly to try and travel that far only to be turned away or scorned by the residence. There are to many other warm places to go. Best of luck to all the residents

    1. Doug December 22, 2020 2:04 pm Reply

      Do you really have no concept about traveling for pleasure during a pandemic and spreading covid which is exploding on the mainland? Even after reading this article? The people I am not “scorning” are the ones who “get it” and are staying away so as not to spread the virus here. Mahalo to those people, they are welcomed back after the pandemic with open arms!!

  3. USAF Brat December 22, 2020 6:37 am Reply

    Ron Clark is mentioned in this publishing, but NOT the obits? Ron Clark was my dear friend and was part of a much better kauai in the early 70s, when I was a KCC Nursing student and i shared a household with Ron Clark in Pua Loke with several other fine peoples, “Gentlee” Bruno. Then, we were only beginning to observe “the is what it is” corruption and fraud, from “Nawiliwili Tenants Association” just after yukimura returned from law school, included are those retroactively, then forward to 2020! Pilau COK, KPD, Governor, senators, DLNR, and Kealoha guilty stolen mailbox fraud that every last one of them as above stated are complicit. Why wasnt a local chief of police and Kauai Fire chief chosen to fill positioning? They certainly have no clue, but were chosen from Las Vegas applicants, and now the DHHL is considering casino implementation instead of putting Kanaka on THEIR lands in real homes, not fedwreckian Danner “tiny homes”. The abuse of power is rampant and the facts are in, we have been “paying attention”, we also know who is not guilty, but rather “set up”, just like in the movies, Atta Brun! Soon, we the people will implement one of three fixes, a canefield ride, a FEMA prison barge to GITMO, or “paylay” volcano diving. GAME OVER! Pay to play or suffer the consequences

    1. Cami Jean December 22, 2020 4:39 pm Reply

      We traveled to Kauai to marry on Nov 4th. We adhered to all protocols. Got negative tests before boarding our flight, wore masks and face shields during our entire travel day, and was selected for a voluntary follow up test 3 days after landing, which I happily took. Tested negative the second time. Even so, we wore masks whenever we went out. HOWEVER I observed that several other travelers did not do the same. In the short time we were at the airport, I witnessed two separate couples and another woman be denied rental car access and the other couple told they had to quarantine because they didn’t have their results. Whether they didn’t get tested or just didn’t get their results in time, I don’t know. I am sympathetic to both sides. I know the island needs tourists to thrive, but Kauai doesn’t have the medical infrastructure to treat everyone if they have a major outbreak. Hopefully the vaccine will make a huge difference and jobs, businesses and lives will all be saved.

  4. HB December 22, 2020 7:54 am Reply

    Mr. Clark was 84 and in a high risk category. It should have been contingent upon HIM to quarantine himself throughout this time and he could now get a vaccine. Why, Mr. Mayor do you continue to play God with our island and force the vast majority into economic poverty for the sake of the few vulnerable who should be isolating themselves? Fear is the greater disease! And Joanne, isolating Kauai yet again is not the answer. Sadly it will not bring your friend back.

  5. Laura B Busby December 22, 2020 9:01 am Reply

    Not testing pilots and airline personnel??? That makes no sense at all.

  6. John T Fowler Jr December 22, 2020 9:04 am Reply

    I personally do not see any practical way to isolate the virus. It will simply have to run its course as similar things have done in the past. Of course even ONE death is devastating to that one person that dies and their loved ones. That being said the devastation in the way of hunger, foreclosed mortgages, depression, suicide, domestic battery, etc. caused by a destroyed economy is far worse and a much bigger threat to this country. The economic loss we have already suffered is something we will never recover from. I thank God that at least I live in Florida where we have a governor that realizes that people simply MUST work to survive!

  7. Susan December 22, 2020 11:39 am Reply

    This article was reprinted from AP, it is not original reporting, so I doubt the author is familiar with Kauai and its politics.

    Had a true local written it, it would have been more of an indictment against Kawakami and Ige, who are completely to blame for the new spate of “community spread” that has resulted from their utterly moronic and downright negligent decision to re-open Kauai to tourism without any testing or quarantining.

    I really do hope that the local residents who have caught Covid decide to file a class-action lawsuit against Kawakami and demand an investigation into his offshore bank accounts. It is the only way our leaders will be forced to take responsibility for what they have done to us.

    1. HB December 23, 2020 5:50 pm Reply

      I agree the indictment should be against Kawacommie and Igenoramus but for the opposite reason. They have zero right to usurp the rights of the people to do business and make a living. You are also incorrect in that there were and ARE testing requirements to avoid quarantine. These are a reasonable compromise in order to keep the economy intact. Kawacommie should be sued for the billions in lost revenue from his current lockout to tourism. Christmas is our busiest season. Susan. if you are so afraid, I suggest you lock yourself in your home until the danger passes. That should be your choice, but nobody has the right to lock in (or out) totally healthy people! We are not (yet) a communist dictatorship, though Kawacommie has taken a huge step in that direction.

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