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Harbor Lights COVID-19 cluster is now ‘stablilized’

Residents, community groups band together to assist complex

Harbor Lights Tenant Action Committee volunteers Ashley Souza (left), Harbor Lights Head of Security Paula Diep (right) and volunteer Ella Nelson (in hallway), help clean the laundry room recently. The group has been volunteering to clean and sanitize public areas once a week since Jan. 8 to help curb the spread of COVID-19. — Harbor Lights Tenant Action Committee photo

After close to a month of rising case counts, COVID-19 cases at the Harbor Lights condominiums in Kahului are “trending down” and health officials are calling the cluster “stabilized.”

The last two positive cases were reported this week, putting the total count at 106, Maui District Health Office officials said Thursday.

“There is no evidence the cluster still exists,” said DOH spokesman Brooks Baehr. “That is not to say someone else at Harbor Lights won’t become infected. That possibility always exists.”

“Everyone at Harbor Lights and elsewhere should continue best practices,” he added, such as wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and avoiding gatherings.

Resident learned of COVID-19 cases at the condominiums on Christmas Day. By New Year’s the count had reached at least 30, and by the first full week of January, cases tripled to 92.

The Harbor Lights condominium complex is pictured in Kahului. After close to a month of rising COVID-19 case counts, a cluster of more than 100 cases at Harbor Lights is “trending down” and health officials are calling it “stabilized.” — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Health Department believes the outbreak is due to a holiday choir practice.

“We are going to continue testing and sanitizing until we get nothing” as far as cases go, said Laurie Robello, a spokeswoman for Harbor Lights and also a board member for the complex.

Robello also thanked Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang and his staff after Pang came out to the complex multiple times to educate residents about the virus.

Feelings of hope

A bright spot in the ordeal has been the way residents and community groups have come together to help. About 15 households joined forces with community organizations and facility leaders to clean, educate residents and pass out personal protective equipment and food to the residents of the approximately 350-unit complex.

Volunteer Russell Phoenix Maui (left) and Harbor Lights Head of Security Paula Diep clean elevators at the Harbor Lights condominium complex recently. COVID-19 cases have slowed at the Kahului condo. — Harbor Lights Tenant Action Committee photo

“We could not have overcome the situation as quickly as we have if it wasn’t for the volunteers,” Robello said.

She said the main group of volunteers, along with Paula Diep, the head of security for the complex, have been cleaning and sanitizing elevators, walkways and stairways weekly. Diep also carries masks and passes them out to residents without one.

Resident J. Kahala Chrupalyk, the head of the Tenant Action Committee, said that “as a community, we are honored to step up to be of assistance to our complex — both tenants and owners alike. Every resident here values the place that we call home.”

She said that even though residents have concerns for their health, they stepped up, and no one on the committee got sick or contracted COVID-19.

“We feel as though it is important to show people that overcoming the fear of COVID is easy, when we follow proper rules of precaution and practice good hygiene standards,” Chrupalyk said.

She still remembers waking up to the news on Christmas Day that COVID-19 was in the complex.

“I feel as though everyone had a grim outlook because we were the recipients of scary news for our families,” Chrupalyk said. “The warning signs (at the complex) provided rules, but no evidence that mitigation might occur. This is understandable, although the lack of resolution left residents feeling utterly hopeless.”

She said many kupuna were afraid and called upon healthier residents to get more information. Parents of young children were not sure if they were “more panicked or upset,” as the cases would likely put their kids into further isolation with nonessential visitors not being allowed in the complex.

“After already dealing with nine months of isolation, without activity, the families with children have been struggling even further, to be cut off from the rest of their families or the least bit of normal that people were beginning to look forward to. The situation promised nothing positive at all,” Chrupalyk said.

But some residents took action that snowballed into positive measures.

A Facebook page created by resident Kaiolani Shaw Burrows-Nahoopii began gaining views and followers. Another resident, Ashley Souza, who had already handled food donations from churches to folks at the complex prior to the outbreak, asked churches for PPE donations while Chrupalyk installed a hand sanitizer station.

Souza took a photo of the sanitizer and wrote a short story and posted it on Facebook. In less than a day, it generated enough results that Diep had to call reinforcements to handle the outpouring of donations that showed up at the front gate.

Chrupalyk said that 99 percent of the donations came from churches, retail stores, neighboring University of Hawaii Maui College staff and the greater community, along with donations from a resident who also works at the Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resources Center.

Maui County and other organizations have also assisted.

Resident Chase Nawahine Crawford said that at first he felt scared hearing the news about the cluster.

But the social media coordinator for the resident volunteer group said, “I think we brought numbers of COVID-19 cases way down than what it was at Harbor Lights” thanks to cleaning efforts.

Since Jan. 8, the volunteer group has sanitized common areas every Friday night.

“All work is volunteer, and our security staff usually feeds us on those nights,” Chrupalyk said. “To date, 100 percent of the monetary donations that we have received have been spent on actual supplies such as our sanitizing equipment and PPE where supplies are low.”

“Our compensation is to see our community flourish once more.”

Bridget Velasco, a planner with Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Maui District Health Office, said she and others at the office also give credit to all the volunteers for bringing the cases down. But she said it is important for the community to also reach out to others who may be suffering due to COVID.

Residents question management’s response

As the number of cases grew, some residents said they felt management and the board could have done more in enforcing mask rules, monitoring gatherings and visitors and taking measures to prevent the outbreak from happening.

“Nothing regarding posting of signs and etc. as it relates to COVID-19 was not taken seriously until the reported outbreak on Dec. 25, 2020,” one resident said via email.

The resident, who did not want to be identified, said there had been issues with large gatherings of non-family members, groups congregating without masks or practicing social distancing as well as people failing to wear masks in hallways and elevators. The concerns were brought to apartment officials, but nothing was done prior to the outbreak, the resident said.

Robello said laws already required mask wearing and distancing, but “we cannot police” residents. Apartment management and security could only ask people to comply.

“We cannot force them,” Robello said.

She said that prior to the outbreak, the board did vote to have all Harbor Lights employees wear a mask during working hours.

Diep added that board and management put out a notice that masks were “highly required” early on in the pandemic. She personally taped the notices to each of the unit doors.

Some residents refused to wear masks, prompting Harbor Lights to call police, Diep said.

The complex levied fines of $100 for not wearing a mask after the outbreak. When asked why the penalty was not enacted earlier, Diep explained that some residents were out of work and probably could not pay $100. She called for compassion first.

Diep also denied that there were large gatherings of maskless people that apartment officials failed to break up, saying she is consistently patrolling the grounds and that those events did not occur.

At times people may be outdoors smoking without a mask, but there are usually a limited number of people who are all social distancing, Diep said.

If the law said no gatherings of more than 10 people, then that’s what security adhered to, Diep added.

“We follow the state laws to the exact,” she said.

Diep felt it was a “foolish question” for other residents to ask a large complex to monitor everyone who comes in and goes out, and added that they cannot stop relatives from visiting each other.

“Before the cluster, we cannot say you cannot have visitors in your house,” she said.

Diep said some units are already crowded with more than five residents. There are also a lot of family members and friends who stop by to take residents to the doctor or other essential errands.

When the cluster hit, the board voted to only allow essential workers in and out and began taking temperatures of visitors, Robello said, adding that the restrictions on visitation remain in place.

As for whether management should have played a bigger role when residents were mobilizing their own cleaning efforts, Robello said the temporary manager on-site continued his focus on the ongoing maintenance of the facility and probably felt that Diep could handle the mitigation measures.

Robello said a new general manager has been hired and is being trained.

She added that some office workers at Harbor Lights were afraid when initial cases broke out, which may have led to them being less involved in the response.

Robello said the board continues to replenishing sanitizers that cost $72 per refill and that prior to community donations, the board purchased masks as well.

Harbor Lights ‘should not be stigmatized’

Diep and Robello noted that residents have been stigmatized by the public. Residents have been asked by their employers not to come to work if they are returning to the apartments.

“When you think about it, they really didn’t pass anything (to others), there was no number increases in the hospitals or anyone that checked into the hospital for the COVID-19 from the Harbor Lights,” Robello said.

At a county news conference on Wednesday, Mayor Michael Victorino said the cluster infected residents but most have been identified, quarantined and treated.

“Harbor Lights residents should not be stigmatized. I think that’s really important,” he said.

He said a reason why authorities do their best to not identify business or apartment complexes or other areas with COVID-19 cases is to prevent the public from stigmatizing others.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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