‘We’re still in a very high surge’

A health expert has warned that the state is underestimating the impacts of an ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases.

Tim Brown, an infectious disease expert with the East-West Center, appeared on a livestreamed interview Monday to discuss the current rise in cases he said has largely been ignored by the general public.

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The state Department of Health reported 7,199 new cases statewide between June 8 and June 15, with 803 reported on the Big Island alone. That number averages out to more than 1,028 new cases per day, more than the delta surge in the late summer of 2021.

However, Brown said people are “acting like nothing’s going on.”

“The problem is that the epidemic is being downplayed now from a political perspective and also a public health perspective,” Brown said. “The reality is that we’re still in a very high surge.”

Brown said current COVID test positivity rates are nearly 20%, although he noted that doesn’t take into consideration the thousands of home tests in circulation. But he estimated that there will continue to be large amounts of community spread until mid-July — as long as new variants don’t take hold.

“The protection due to a past infection (from the omicron variant) is turning out to be comparatively weak,” Brown said, adding that the latest variants — called BA.4 and BA.5 — “eat (previous variants) for lunch,” and have evolved to circumvent COVID immunity from vaccines or previous infections.

Brown said anywhere between 20% to 40% of people who have been infected with COVID report some form of long-term “long COVID” symptoms, and half of them report that their symptoms have impacts on their daily lives. He went on to say that continuing to underestimate the long-term damage caused by the coronavirus will “come to haunt us.”

Brown said health officials should have pushed for people to get a second booster shot already, but pointed out that those shots are widely available for those who have a health condition that exposes them to more severe illness.

“My recommendation is, push your doctor a bit,” Brown said. “Because you probably do have one of those many, many conditions — look on the CDC website, there’s 20, 30, 40 conditions — and that is a reason to get a booster shot.”

A statement from state Department of Health spokesman Brooks Baehr urged all residents above the age of 50, and those older than 12 with compromised immune systems, to get a second booster. He also encouraged parents to schedule vaccinations for their children.

“While the current surge may have hit a plateau and we may see case counts drop in coming weeks, Oahu, Hawaii Island, Maui and Kauai still have high levels of COVID-19,” Baehr said in his statement. “People should protect themselves and those around them by getting vaccinated and boosted, wearing masks indoors, and avoiding large crowds. The Department of Health encourages everyone to get up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters.”

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