Hawaii COVID cases spike

  • Premier Medical Group vaccinates community members outside of S. Tokunaga Store in Hilo on June 30.

  • A shopper walks out of S. Tokunaga Store in Hilo on June 30. (Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

The state Department of Health on Thursday reported 243 confirmed and probable new cases of COVID-19 across Hawaii — the biggest single-day case count since January and the eighth straight day totals have reached triple digits.

“Really what we’re seeing here is widespread community transmission around the state,” DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr said during a Zoom call with media and state health officials Thursday. “We do occasionally see that vaccinated people get infected, but overwhelmingly the number of new cases we’re seeing are among unvaccinated people.

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“They are unvaccinated people who are not wearing masks indoors. They are unvaccinated people who are traveling,” he continued. “About 20% of the cases we’ve seen this month involve unvaccinated people connected to travel.”

According to Baehr, 66 of the 243 cases Thursday, or 27%, involved children 18 and younger.

“And as you know, a lot of those people are children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” he said. “Unfortunately we see that unvaccinated adults are still infecting children who are not eligible to be vaccinated.”

State health officials say the recent surge could be linked to the growing prevalence of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

A July 20 variant report issued by the DOH estimates the Delta variant caused 55% of COVID cases in the state for the week ending July 3.

In the week ending June 19, the strain only accounted for an estimated 17% of cases.

“This is more or less what was anticipated — that when this variant is present in a population, it expands,” said Dr. Edward Desmond, administrator of the DOH State Laboratories Division in the Zoom call. “It’s more transmissible than the other variants. The increased number of cases may possibly be linked to the presence of this variant in our population.”

The Delta variant, which originated in India, was first detected in Hawaii in June and has since been identified in all four counties.

Desmond said the uptick in cases coincided with the introduction of the Delta variant.

“Last year, the blip (of cases) after Fourth of July was a tiny blip and went away very rapidly,” Kauai District Health Officer Dr. Janet Berreman said during the Zoom call. “This year after the Fourth, what we’re seeing is rapid and exponential rise, and it is showing no signs of diminishing.”

The holiday is a relatively minor contributor to growing case counts, she said, but the main culprits likely are the Delta variant and an increase in travel, largely by residents traveling to the mainland and returning home.

According to Desmond, however, an article published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine found that available vaccines are highly effective against the Delta variant.

Masks and other mitigation efforts, like social distancing, are still a good idea, even for those who are vaccinated, “But it is reassuring to see this new study that shows the efficacy of our vaccines,” Desmond said.

Clusters

But growing case counts mean more clusters have been reported across the state.

“We do indeed have sobering news on every front today — the increase in cases, the increasing spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, so it’s not a surprise that the cluster report shows new clusters and clusters on every island in every county in our state,” Berreman said.

According to a cluster report published Thursday by the DOH, two clusters have been investigated on the Big Island in the last 14 days, including one previously reported at Hawaii Community Correctional Facility that had a total of 286 cases, and one at an unidentified place of worship that resulted in 20 cases.

“We’re seeing widespread community transmission and associated with that, we are seeing clusters that are widely distributed also,” Berreman said.

Common features among the clusters are people who are unvaccinated; settings in which people are not consistently wearing masks, especially indoors; and settings where people are spending prolonged time together indoors.

“The good news in this … is that our vaccines are highly effective in preventing disease and in preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Berreman said. “So the most important bottom line is that everyone who hasn’t already been vaccinated, should be and should do so as soon as possible. The situation is really urgent with the rapid increase in cases and rapid spread of the Delta variant. Now is the time for people who have been waiting.”

Big Island cases

Fifty new COVID cases were reported on the Big Island Thursday. Baehr said those cases are among groups of friends and family.

According to data from the DOH, Hawaii County’s test positivity rate has soared to 5.3%, the highest in the state, which has an overall positivity rate of 3.9%.

“As an administration, we are concerned about the rise in positive cases,” Cyrus Johnasen, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Roth, said in an email. “However, we remain optimistic about the community’s ability and will to stop the spread and keep the virus at bay. We have all of the tools necessary to protect ourselves and our ohana, with vaccinations being the most important. It remains our kuleana to utilize those tools for the benefit of our island and our communities.”

Johnasen said the bulk of cases are dispersed across the island, with most cases focused in more populated areas.

According to the DOH, 74 cases have been reported in Hilo in the past 14 days, while 36 have been reported in Kailua-Kona and 34 in North Hawaii during the same time period.

Additionally, 16 cases in Pahoa and 14 in Keaau have been reported in the last two weeks.

Hawaii County this week restarted its testing program to address the uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Testing will be available from 3-6 p.m. Tuesdays at the Kona Community Aquatic Center in Kailua-Kona and Wednesdays at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo through August.

According to Johnasen, approximately 267 individuals came out for testing this week. The county will continue to assess the demand and make adjustment to its testing schedule if necessary.

Three additional COVID-related deaths also were reported Thursday — two on Oahu and one on Maui.

One of the dead was an Oahu woman, between the ages of 60-69, who was hospitalized and had multiple underlying health conditions, but was fully vaccinated, Baehr said.

The woman is the second of the state’s 527 COVID-related dead to have been fully vaccinated against the disease.

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“Since we have had fully vaccinated people in Hawaii, more than 98% of the deaths here have been among unvaccinated people,” said Baehr. “So the vaccines continue to prove that they are tremendously effective. They are our best path out of this pandemic and people can be part of the solution by getting vaccinated.”

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

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