State is shifting away from emergency response to COVID | News, Sports, Jobs

COVID-19 testing is conducted in June 2020 in Kihei. With mass testing and vaccination events phasing out, the state announced Wednesday that it is moving away from an emergency response to COVID-19 and more toward disease management, in which the virus will be treated like many other diseases that are diagnosed and treated. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Hawaii is changing the way it approaches COVID-19, moving from an emergency response to a public health management strategy for the virus, even as the state is seeing increased case counts.

“COVID-19 isn’t going away,” Gov. David Ige said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “In fact, case counts are increasing and the experts expect that COVID will be with us for the foreseeable future. Our response must transition from emergency response to disease management, and that’s where we’re at. As part of the transition, COVID will be handled more like other diseases, something health care providers diagnose and treat.”

Ige said that “we all know what we need to do to slow the spread of COVID,” reminding people to get vaccinated and boosted, stay home when sick and get tested.

As the state transitions, Ige said the Department of Health will continue to play a critical role in its genome sequencing of the virus to detect variants, surveillance system of the virus, continuing with COVID monitoring in wastewater in certain parts of the state as well as offering guidance for “keeping people safe and schools and business open.”

“We do have the tools to limit severe disease and its impact on our community,” Ige later added, referring to vaccines and treatments.

Ige also confirmed that the state is “not planning to impose new mask mandates or vaccination requirements at this point in time.”

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble acknowledged the increase in case counts, with the seven-day average currently at 362 cases, up “fourfold” from a low of 88 on March 18. She also noted the more transmissible BA.2 variant is increasing in the state.

Maui County saw 403 new cases in the past week, up from 216 the previous week. But the DOH said some cases across the state are from a backlog due to a laboratory reporting issue from April 6 to 25.

Kemble said that the state did expect to see an increase as mandates were being dropped, such as the indoor mask requirement, in addition to more people traveling, going to work in person and doing other things they haven’t done in a while.

Kemble pointed out that many are taking home tests and that these results are not included in DOH data.

“We must maintain a level of caution,” Kemble said, taking into the account the higher case counts.

But, she added, “The cases we are seeing right now, are not so far associated with a dramatic increase in hospitalizations. We do have reasons to be hopeful that more cases does not have to mean a large burden of critical illness and death.”

As of 9 a.m. Wednesday, Maui Memorial Medical Center had five unvaccinated people hospitalized for COVID-19, according to Maui Health’s website. No patients were in the intensive care unit or on a ventilator.

Kemble said that globally, in areas with full vaccination among the population, or around 85 percent before the omicron variant surge, cases shot up and hospitalizations rose, but ICU admissions and death rates did not rise at the same rate as in previous surges.

Hawaii’s vaccination rate is close to those with high rates globally, Kemble noted. DOH reported on Wednesday that the state’s vaccination rate was at 77.2 percent.

A substantial proportion of Hawaii’s population may have immunity due to the cases during the omicron variant, she added.

But Kemble still urged caution, noting that hospitalization is a “lagging indicator” of the disease spreading and reminding people to get vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask if necessary and, for high-risk residents, to talk to their health care providers about COVID treatment.

State officials did not provide specific thresholds that would trigger certain COVID-19 rules or responses, only providing general strategies moving forward.

State Health Director Dr. Libby Char said the state now has three main goals it will follow that mirror the national plan: protect against and treat COVID-19, detect and prepare for new variants and enhance community resilience.

Large vaccination and testing clinics of the past are phased out, Char said. There are still “plenty” of vaccines offered at clinics and other providers, and testing can now be done by health providers and at home, she pointed out.

She said there is still some community testing by the counties and also provided through the state Department of Education in partnership with the Health Department.

Char reminded residents that they can still receive free test kits and can visit for details.

When asked why the state is making a transition now from an emergency response to one of public health management as cases are rising, Char said the transition had already been in the works months ago when the case numbers were lower.

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi said the department will keep its universal indoor masking policy in place for the remaining four weeks of school.

He said the DOE wants to finish the school year strong and ensure there is in-person learning for the students.

Like the state as a whole, schools have also seen an increase in cases, Hayashi said. This is the fifth straight week of increased case counts since spring break, with 396 confirmed or probable cases reported in schools last week.

In a partnership with the DOH, the DOE has received 700,000 home test kits, of which 400,000 have been delivered to schools, Hayashi said.

As for the upcoming graduation season, Hayashi said the DOE has given “overarching guidance and safety parameters” to the schools, but schools have their own flexibility for their safety protocols.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at [email protected]

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