Hospitals prep for surge

Big Island hospitals are preparing for a rough winter as all signs point to an omicron-fueled COVID-19 surge within the next month.

Hilton Rae­thel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, predicted earlier this week that, based on rising infection and test positivity rates, there will be a spike in new cases the week after Christmas, and then another spike the week after New Year’s Day.


The state Department of Health reported 866 new COVID cases on Oahu alone Wednesday, continuing a six-day trend of increasing numbers. By comparison, 21 cases were reported on Hawaii Island.

With hospitals around the state already busy with non-COVID illnesses — Raethel said nearly 2,250 of the state’s 2,600 hospital beds are occupied, 60 of which with COVID patients — hospitals on Hawaii Island are worried about a repeat of the delta surge from earlier this year, which pushed many of their resources to the limits.

“We’re keeping our ears open,” said Hilo Medical Center spokeswoman Elena Cabatu. “We’re hoping for the best, but we’re making preparations.”

Cabatu said HMC is encouraging as many of the hospital’s approximately 1,500 employees as possible to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster before the predicted surge. Currently, 96% of HMC’s staff have completed an initial vaccine regimen.

Judy Donovan, spokeswoman for Kona Community Hospital, said about 90% of her hospital’s employees have been vaccinated.

Both Donovan and Cabatu said their hospitals are seeking additional staffing in preparation for the surge.

Cabatu said HMC is offering sign-on bonuses for those who fill certain positions, and will seek additional staff from the mainland, as the hospital did during the delta surge using funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Donovan said Kona Community Hospital has sent a request to FEMA for 16 positions who would, ideally, remain on staff for eight weeks.

“We haven’t really relaxed anything since the last surge, so we’re fully prepared,” Donovan said, adding that an overflow tent that can house an additional 10 patients has never been used, but remains standing in preparation for the omicron spike.

In addition, Donovan said the hospital is prepared to discontinue nonemergency surgery operations in order to house up to six additional patients in the postoperative ward.

In the meantime, Cabatu urged residents to get fully vaccinated and get a booster shot if they haven’t already.

Starting Monday, HMC will hold a vaccination clinic on weekdays at the hospital. Residents can register for the clinics online using the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Administration Management System at

“We really are hopeful that people will continue to social distance and take precautions,” Donovan said. “We’re not seeing too many cases coming in right now, but don’t let your guard down over the holidays.”

State Health Director Elizabeth Char recommended Wednesday that residents limit holiday gatherings to family members only, preferably those fully vaccinated and boosted, and to wear masks, social distance and gather outside whenever possible.

Email Michael Brestovansky at

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