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Panel debates tourism’s role in COVID-19 surge at town hall

Officials, residents agree that second post-travel test should be required

Steve O’Neal, a former U.N. Disaster response team leader and Kauai resident, discusses tourist COVID-19 case numbers during a virtual town hall meeting Monday evening that discussed the continued impact of the coronavirus on Maui County. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photos

Government officials and community members disagree over whether or not tourism is to blame for the spike in COVID-19 cases in Maui County, though both feel that a second post-arrival test for travelers is needed.

Steve O’Neal, a former U.N. Disaster response team leader and Kauai resident, said during a virtual town hall Monday evening that he believed there has been a “steady traveler seeding” of new cases in Maui County in early November and December.

Cases have surged on Maui of late, and while state Department of Health data has linked most of them to community spread, O’Neal said that “community spread could decline, I think, if we stop seeding the community with so many new cases.”

Travel has increased since the state launched a pre-travel testing program in mid-October that allows trans-Pacific and interisland travelers to bypass the mandatory 10-day quarantine if they receive a negative COVID-19 test from a trusted partner 72 hours prior to their flight.

O’Neal believes that the “low-lying percolation” of visitor cases has been contributing to the total case counts.

Maui County Managing Director Sandy Baz discusses the county COVID-19 testing numbers during a virtual town hall meeting Monday evening.

“I think we should be concerned about that and recognize that perhaps the Safe Travels program should still be somewhat modified,” he said.

O’Neal was one of the panelists participating in a virtual town hall meeting organized by Maui County Council Member Kelly King on Monday night.

He emphasized that he was not anti-tourist, as he understood that people need to get back to work and that tourism is vital to the economy. However, he felt travel should be opened only if visitors take a second test after their arrival, with a short quarantine period in between.

He pointed out that Maui County has a disproportionate number of visitors coming in versus residents with eight visitors to every one returning resident. On Kauai, the ratio is 15 visitors to every one returning resident.

Kauai has the strictest protocols for visitors and has opted out of the Safe Travels program. On Jan. 5, the island began its “resort bubble” program in which a person who takes a pre-travel test, quarantines for three days on the “resort bubble” property and then takes a post-travel test can be released from quarantine if their results are negative, according to Kauai County’s website.

Like Maui, Kauai has seen a spike in cases in recent months. After having no more than nine cases per month from July to October, Kauai County recorded 49 cases in November and 34 in December, according to state Department of Health data. Of the cases in November, 49 percent were related to residents traveling, 33 percent to visitors traveling and 18 percent to community spread. In December, 68 percent were community associated, 26 percent were related to resident travel and 6 percent to visitor travel.

Maui County, meanwhile, went from 50 cases in September to 133 in October, 150 in November and 483 in December, according to DOH data. Of the 146 November cases with known risk factors, 66 percent were community associated, 25 percent were resident travel associated and 10 percent were visitor travel associated. Of the 449 December cases with known risk factors, 81 percent were tied to community spread, 14 were linked to resident travel and 5 percent to visitor travel.

During the town hall, O’Neal pointed to statistics show that on Oct. 15, the day that Safe Travels program opened up, Maui County had 1 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases, while Oahu had 89 percent. As of Sunday, Maui County had 18 percent of state cases, while Oahu had 74 percent. He said he didn’t believe that people on Maui had acted that much differently from those on Oahu.

But Maui County Managing Director Sandy Baz said during the town hall that Maui County’s peak in cases in October came from the Lanai cluster and was not tourist related. He pointed out that the cases on Lanai began in October when a health care worker went to Lanai and spread the virus to other workers.

Of the 14,500 county-sponsored tests done as part of periodic drive-thru testing and the county’s voluntary second-test program, there have been about 310 positives, Baz said.

Baz added that many of the cases the county has been seeing recently came from the cluster at the Harbor Lights condominium complex in Kahului and from the Pacific Islander community. These cases total around 150, Baz said.

He noted that prior to the Safe Travels program, the county did ask Gov. David Ige to mandate a second post-arrival test for Maui County that would have required travelers who tested negative prior to arrival to quarantine in their place of lodging for three days before taking another test. When that was denied, Baz said the county opted into the Safe Travels program.

Baz said the county still would feel more comfortable with a second post-travel test.

O’Neal pointed out that Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami opted out of the Safe Travels program after not being able to mandate a second test. He commended Maui County for having free testing for residents and visitors.

“We would love to see that on Kauai,” he said.

State Rep. Tina Wildberger, another panelist during the town hall, said that she agrees that there is a disproportionate number of tourists versus residents traveling to the county and going to resort areas such as Kihei and Lahaina.

Wildberger’s district of South Maui has been one of the hotspots of late, with 78 cases reported over the past 14 days in the Maalaea to Makena region (ZIP code 96753).

Wildberger refuted the assertions that the data says that the county’s COVID-19 transmission is not travel related.

“The virus doesn’t move, people move,” she said.

She added that she will introduce several bills to assist the public this legislative session, including modernizing government data, after the state’s antiquated computer system struggled to keep up with thousands of unemployment claims during the pandemic.

Panelists at the town hall also agreed that visitors should download an application like the AlohaSafe Alert app, which notifies users if they come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Maui County has asked Ige to allow the county to require this for travelers, among other rule changes that have not yet been approved.

Baz also shared during the town hall that there will be “another set of cases” from Lanai after someone visiting friends there tested positive and infected some others on the island.

A Maui County spokesman referred questions about the Lanai cases to the state DOH, which did not immediately respond to a query from The Maui News on Tuesday afternoon. The new cases were not yet reflected in the DOH totals Tuesday as Lanai’s COVID-19 case count remained at 106, where it’s been for more than a month.

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

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