‘Underwhelmed’: As Hana and Moloka’i confront their first COVID-19 cases, elected officials are frustrated with notification procedures

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Maui Time

Rep. Lynn DeCoite (L) and Sen. J. Kalani English (R), who represent the areas, remain concerned, confused, and angry by the lack of information coming from county officials, hospital staff, and the Department of Health

Up until around noon on Thursday, April 2, life was pretty normal on Molokaʻi. While the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading around the state, Molokaʻi’s 7,500 residents so far had been spared. That changed abruptly that day with the news that a Molokaʻi man who had recently been in Las Vegas had tested positive for the virus and been airlifted to Oʻahu for hospitalization.

The next day Hana, which had also maintained a virus-free status, saw its first COVID-19 case: a woman with some “travel history.”

Since then, both closely-knit communities have been upended, as hazmat-clad decontamination workers sanitize stores and other public areas, and new grocery store procedures keep shoppers outside. Tuesday, visiting doctors arrived on Molokaʻi with virus testing kits and swabbed almost 400 people. With limited medical facilities and staff, preventing community spread is paramount, as it is in remote Hana.

However, state and local elected representatives from Molokaʻi and Hana remain concerned, confused, and angry by the lack of information coming from county officials, hospital staff, and the Department of Health which, to date, has not sent investigators to either community. The situation is particularly serious on Molokaʻi. The now-hospitalized man worked at a local market and came into contact with at least 100 people before his COVID-19 diagnosis. One of his co-workers has now tested positive as well. The island is considered Hawaiʻi’s most vulnerable community given its scarce medical services. Molokaʻi’s hospital has just 15 beds.

“The problem we’re seeing across the board is that the information is one-way,” said state Sen. J. Kalani English, whose district encompasses East Maui, Upcountry, Molokaʻi and Lanaʻi. “Health officials say, ‘You must report to us, you must tell us, you must do all this stuff.’ Everybody does it, but when we ask for information back, the Department of Health won’t give it. I’m extremely disappointed and underwhelmed at its lack of providing timely information.”

Contrast in Cases 

The two COVID-19 cases on Molokaʻi and Hana couldn’t be more different. The Molokaʻi man told his boss, the owner of Friendly Market in Kaunakakai, that he had stayed home after his Las Vegas trip. “He lied,” said State Representative Lynn DeCoite, whose district includes Molokaʻi, Lanaʻi and East Maui. “After telling his boss that he had self-quarantined, a picture of him floated around showing him in the middle of town partying.”

The Hana patient, after the news was released Friday, identified herself on Facebook, writing that she became sick after returning from a trip to Canada on March 20. “Since returning I have had absolutely no contact with anyone except for my husband and my daughter, who have both been in quarantine.”

She wrote, “The worst part of my experience…has been the unrelenting guilt since learning of my results…I would never intend to keep this a “secret” from my community…I would NEVER knowingly do anything to jeopardize the health of any of you.” She asked anyone with concerns to contact her.

An Afternoon of Panic

Before last Thursday, said Molokaʻi resident and activist Walter Ritte, “We had gotten lackadaisical. We were one of the first islands to protest against tourist arrivals and, after that, we thought we were pretty safe. But everything flipped on its side that afternoon.”

Ritte said his grandson had worked at Friendly Market with the COVID-19 patient. “So I guess we’ll all end up in quarantine.”

The news about the COVID infection “moved at the speed of light,” across the island said DeCoite. “I have never seen the Coconut Wireless work so fast.” Thursday afternoon, the three island grocers abruptly closed. Elected leaders scrambled for information. Nothing had yet been announced publicly.

DeCoite called Mayor Michael Victorino that evening. “First he asked whether the case was male or female. I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, what are you going to do?’”

DeCoite said she told Victorino, “You want everything to be run through you? Fine. We have a crisis on our hands. Is the information accurate or not? That’s all I care about.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to put Kalani [English