‘Omicron’s going to take off’: State health director urges caution as coronavirus cases soar

State and county officials are urging residents to keep their holiday celebrations small as COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise statewide.

The state Department of Health reported 1,511 new COVID cases statewide Thursday, 66 of them on the Big Island, continuing a weeklong trend of increasing case counts. The highest amount of cases in Hawaii over a single day was 1,678 in August during the delta surge.


Health Director Libby Char said during a Thursday livestream that the rising number of infections is being fueled by the more transmissible omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, which she predicted will become the predominant strain in the state within a few weeks.

“I think this surge started with (the) delta (variant),” Char said. “Just temporally, looking at the time, I think it started out with delta, and now there’s a lot of omicron that’s also laid on top of that. And so, what we’re going to see going forward, we’re going to see omicron, and that’s why we’re so concerned. Up to now, there’s been a fair amount of delta, and now omicron’s going to take off and push delta to the side.”

While some studies, including a preliminary report published by the University of Edinburgh on Wednesday, indicate that the omicron variant is less severe than previous strains despite being more easily transmissible, Char urged residents to not let down their guard.

“We’ll do some simple public school math,” Char said. “If you had one strain that caused 10% of the people to get hospitalized, and you have another strain that’s not as bad and only 2% would get hospitalized, seems like the second one shouldn’t be much of a problem, right? But if the first one infects 100 people, that means 10 are going to the hospital, and if the second is so easily transmitted that it infects 1,000 people, that would mean 20 people would be going to the hospital.

“I think we’re kidding ourselves if we say ‘it’s mild, don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal,’” Char continued. “We don’t know about long-haul COVID yet from omicron. We know our hospital rates are going up, people have other health issues. And so we will see people get severely ill, and very sadly, we will see people die from this.”

Char said she has discussed with Gov. David Ige and the county mayors the possibility of reinstating tighter gathering restrictions or travel policies. While no such policy changes are immediately forthcoming, Char said residents should seriously weigh the risks and benefits of traveling during the holidays, advising that unvaccinated people should simply not do so at all.

But, Char added, the methods used to limit the spread of previous variants still work for omicron as well: limiting public gatherings, wearing masks indoors and avoiding crowded places are still effective methods for avoiding the spread of omicron.

Holiday celebrations should be limited to one’s own family bubble, she said.

“Go get your booster shot. Go get it right now, don’t wait,” Char said. “What it does is take your neutralizing antibodies and shoot it way up there. And what happens if you get exposed to the virus is the neutralizing antibodies sort of surround it and beat it up before if ever causes infection in you. And by preventing you from getting infected, then you’re not spreading it to other people.”

Mayor Mitch Roth on Thursday released a list of safe practices people should adhere to over the holidays which mirrored Char’s recommendations: avoid large gatherings, particularly indoors; wear masks when not eating or drinking; remain socially distanced as much as possible; avoid sharing hugs or honis; and more.

“We don’t want anyone to miss out on time spent with friends, family and loved ones,” Roth said in a statement. “After all, that’s what the holidays are all about. However, we are asking that folks spend time in a way that is safe and protects the ones we love and others in our community.

“The community knows what to do, and we have all the faith that they will act in a way that is in the best interest of all of us. Our island is special because everyone cares for everyone, and that is how we have made it through the pandemic thus far, and it’s how we will make it through moving forward.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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