The pandemic has decimated Kaua‘i’s economy. Businesses continue to fail and our residents are desperate. In December, Mayor Kawakami opted out of the Hawai‘i Safe Travels program. Since then, we have seen the desperation spread as a temporary slump turns into permanent damage.
Tourism is the engine of our island economy. It provides employment for thousands of Kaua‘i residents. The money spent by visitors circulates throughout the community, and the taxes it generates pay for county infrastructure and services. The argument over whether and how to diversify our economy is one for another day. We can redesign the house once we put out the fire in the kitchen.
Last week TGI published an opinion piece by several influential local community members. The gist of the argument was that visitor travel was and is a problem across the state. The science does not support their arguments.
The authors state: “In the first seven months of the pandemic, Kaua‘i had 60 infections. After one month of the state’s unsafe-travel plan, Kaua‘i’s total caseload spiked to 120. Of those post-reopening cases, 80% were incoming travelers. The state’s unsafe plan was unquestionably the cause.”
It is true 80% were incoming travelers, but these were a mix of returning residents and visitors. And the much-larger proportion of total cases was actually made of returning residents. For November 2020, Kaua‘i had 49 cases. Forty cases were travel-associated (24 resident and 16 non-resident), and nine were community-spread. Of the 40 travel-related cases, 16 were positive tests received after arrival. Only 1/3 of all the cases in November were visitors.
What would have happened if we had continued with the Safe Travels program after Governor Ige instituted the requirement that incoming visitors have a negative pre-departure test in-hand upon arrival? The statement that the state’s Safe Travels plan was “unquestionably the cause” is false.
Sample sizes in the dozens, like the monthly case numbers on Kaua‘i, are difficult to draw conclusions from. Small numbers of individual cases can have an outsize effect on the data. A family of five returning from the mainland and testing positive after coming home can dramatically skew small numbers like ours. So we can’t really draw valid conclusions from just Kaua‘i’s cases. We need to look at larger data sets like those available statewide.
The authors of last week’s opinion piece say “Kaua‘i wisely opted out. Maui didn’t — and went from 1% of the state’s total cases to 18% today.”
This is not a useful correlation, and it doesn’t examine the underlying cause of the increase. Maui has had clusters and community spread unrelated to travel since last August, starting with an outbreak at Maui Memorial Medical Center. Their travel-related cases have actually dropped as a percentage of their overall case count. The increase in cases on Maui is community-driven.
In their article, the authors state: “The lieutenant governor’s own Safe Travels Surveillance Study was quietly terminated after 18 positives out of 2,507 post arrival PCR tests from O‘ahu, Maui and Kaua‘i showed that the pre-departure test missed at least seven of 1,000 travelers — seven times the prediction of the state’s travel plan.”
According to Civil Beat, Dec. 15, 2020, “While nearly 346,000 people arrived in Hawai‘i between Oct. 16 and Dec. 1, the study period, the state has recorded just 226 known positive (travel-related) coronavirus cases, which is a rate of about 0.61 per 1,000 people, according to the study.” Drawing a conclusion based on 18 positive cases is to again rely on an extremely-small data set. The larger data set cited in Civil Beat will provide a better analysis, and it shows a low number of positives slipping past the single-test protocol.
Another argument by the authors: “There appears to be a concerted effort to blame local residents for the COVID spread. Those minimizing the role of travel are denying a basic pandemic fact: TRAVEL CAUSES SPREAD.”
This conclusion is not supported by the data. Statewide between October and January, community spread represented between 66% and 95% of total cases statewide. Visitor-travel cases have varied between 1% and 4% over the same period. Returning-resident travel-related cases made up the second-largest portion of cases, after community spread.
And, logically, visitors represent a lower threat of spread than returning residents. Returning residents come home from spending time in close quarters with mainland friends and relatives, they visit casinos, then they live, socialize and work with family, friends and co-workers here on the island. Visitors tend to have less prolonged close contact with locals. The relatively low numbers of visitor-travel cases statewide supports this view.
The authors say “(T)he state’s travel plan is likely a significant cause of the triple-digit, seven-day, new-cases average that plagued Hawai‘i throughout January.”
Again, the science doesn’t support this conclusion. Community-associated spread statewide has been the main source of infection for most of the pandemic. It has hovered around 85% since November. The main cause of triple-digit spikes in Hawai‘i have been get-togethers like barbecues, Thanksgiving and Christmas. If visitors were the cause of the spike in statewide numbers in December (3,597) and in January (3,829), why did we see higher spikes in August (6,433) and September (3,850) when we had a 14-day quarantine in effect?
It’s easy to cherry-pick statistics, or to make broad conclusions from small sample sizes like we have on Kaua‘i. But when you look at larger numbers taken statewide, and dig deeper into data like the Maui-has-spikes, the statistical data tells us that visitors are not a major cause of COVID spread in Hawai‘i.
In the beginning of this pandemic, there was much uncertainty. But after nearly a year of trial and error, we have enough information to make an informed decision. There is a middle ground between a 10-day quarantine (or three days in a bubble; more on this in my next letter) and unregulated tourism.
The Safe Travels program data shows that, while not perfect, having a pre-departure negative COVID test in hand upon arrival would allow us to balance a small percentage of visitor-related travel cases with reopening our economy. We need to return to the Safe Travels program for the sake of our island economy and the people who live here. Without tourism, the damage will only get worse.
Michael McGinnis is a resident of Kapa‘a.