‘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] on the phone and we’re going to have a conference call with the [Friendly] owner. He’s going to shut that store down through the 20th [of April] and put everybody into quarantine. You need to get this information out so that people are aware now, so nobody else gets infected.’”

Lots of Phone Calls; No Answers

For Molokaʻi’s County Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, the events of last week left her in tears as she struggled to get answers for her community.

Thursday afternoon she received a call “with a rumor that someone tested positive. I called the hospital and asked if they could verify that this was true and they wouldn’t tell me.”

Rawlins-Fernandez was confused. When she had asked about notification protocol several weeks earlier, she’d been told “they would inform me, Representative DeCoite, and Senator English.” When she mentioned that, “They said, ‘Well that was two weeks ago and yesterday we were ordered not to release this information.’

“I said, ‘I represent the community; they have a right to know.’”

She was told to call someone at Hawai’i Emergency Management, which was equally fruitless. She was given phone numbers to call that were answered by people who “had no idea what was happening.”

Finally the emergency management contact called back and confirmed that there were no patients at the hospital on Moloka’i that tested positive for the virus. “He said, ‘That should give you some peace of mind.’ I told him, ‘No what would give me peace of mind is if you could answer the question I asked: Did anyone on Moloka’i test positive?’ He said she would have to wait for an official announcement from the Department of Health the next day.

“I was so upset,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “I felt that my kuleana to my community was to make sure information continued to flow. The state did a terrible job of communicating to the public from the beginning.”

She also called the Department of Health on Maui, which confirmed the information, “because the mayor had just announced it. So because the mayor released the information, now I could have it. It was really upsetting that at a time like this that politics would still play such a heavy role.”

No Help from Health

Rawlins-Fernandez wasn’t the only frustrated elected official. In separate interviews, DeCoite and English were equally blunt in their assessments, especially when it came to communications with the state Department of Health.

DeCoite said Monday that during a phone call Sunday with Gov. David Ige, he asked her if everything was okay. “I said, ‘Not really. I have yet to find out what the Department of Health is doing. I don’t know where they are with their investigation. Why aren’t they at [the patient’s] bedside?’”

She added, “I have yet to see anybody from the Department of Health on this island.”

At Ige’s news conference Monday, MauiTime asked Hawai’i Department of Health director Bruce Anderson what steps had been taken to address the situation on Moloka’i. Anderson said his department was “aggressively” identifying contacts. “It takes time to reach everyone and on Moloka’i, Lana’i and other places our resources are limited,” Anderson said, adding that the department was relying on “volunteers to help us with contact tracing.”

Those volunteers turned out to be DeCoite and English.

In an interview after Anderson’s remarks, English said, “I wanted to know how the Department of Health was going to do the tracing [of individuals who might have had contact with the patients].” The timeline English was given for the Hana case was completely inadequate, he said. “So I had to do the tracing for Hana and Lynn had to do the one for Moloka’i.

“I’m angry,” English said bluntly. “These are people’s lives and we depend on the Department of Health to be quick and accurate. They’re not doing that.”

If this week’s testing on Moloka’i turns up a cluster of cases, DeCoite said, “There’s no plan in place. What are we supposed to do?”

English reflected, “You know, I talk to the governor almost every day and the mayor, numerous times a day, so that we have the correct information. I don’t get anything from the Department of Health and I’m really, really disappointed.

“But you know, with this pandemic and in this emergency, I’m not going to dwell on that. Right now, I just want to know – how do we protect our people? How do we make sure that they’re safe? What measures do we put in place to make sure they stay safe? Let’s get those things going.

“But when all this is done, we’re going to have that discussion.”

Photos courtesy state of Hawaii

More COVID-19 coverage at http://www.mauitime.com/covid19