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Hana community bands together as COVID cases rise

Residents collecting supplies for families in quarantine

Pristine Perry (from left), Lei Perry and Tyra-Li Perry make up Project Ho‘omana, a grassroots East Maui group that is assisting those with COVID-19 and their families with support, running errands and providing supplies and food. Photo courtesy Lei Perry

In the past two weeks, the isolated Hana community has seen 18 new COVID-19 cases, almost half of its entire pandemic case count of 42, making some residents feel uneasy and concerned, but more so united to help each other in a town that’s about two hours away from the island’s only hospital.

The case surge, as detailed by state Department of Health statistics, has led Maui County’s administration to ask people to refrain from visiting Hana, with even the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association posting on its Facebook page to “please consider holding off your visit to Hana until COVID case numbers there decrease,” and noting the temporary closure of Hana Ranch Restaurant due to COVID activity in the community.

Cases in August have been skyrocketing statewide to hundreds a day, with even smaller communities that outpaced the rest of the state in vaccines early on, such as Molokai and Hana, seeing a spike in cases, a trend that’s “very concerning since we were doing so well prior to the delta variant,” said Cheryl Vasconcellos, executive director at Hana Health, the major health care provider in the Hana district.

So far this month, Hana Health has seen 16 people test positive at its facility, Vasconcellos said Wednesday. In July, the clinic had just four positive cases.

“There was a big spike in a month,” she said.

Hana’s landmark Hasegawa General Store is shown on a slow day in July 2020. As cases spike in the small Hana community, residents are banding together, working hard to increase testing and vaccination efforts and gathering supplies for families in quarantine. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Hana Health has been ramping up vaccinations and testing. On Thursday, 99 people showed up to take a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, COVID test. Vasconcellos said results could be ready as early as today.

“We don’t really want it to get loose,” she said of the delta variant. “This is scary, it’s not like it was even a year ago. The delta variant has really, I mean it’s finding everybody, it really is.”

She added that of Hana’s positive cases, some were “breakthrough” cases of patients who had been vaccinated but caught the virus. Hana Health knows that at least one breakthrough case was immunocompromised, but several others were not.

There has been at least one resident who had to go to the hospital for treatment, Vasconcellos said, adding that the person was not vaccinated and stressing that people should get the shot.

State health officials continue to emphasize that the rate of breakthrough cases is still low and that the vaccine reduces the chances of severe disease and hospitalization. Of the 34 COVID patients at Maui Memorial on Friday, 30 were unvaccinated, the hospital’s chief medical director said.

Overall, Hana has more than 70.1 percent of its population vaccinated, the highest percentage on Maui, according to Department of Health data.

Even with the uptick in vaccinations and testing, Vasconcellos said Hana Health is able to manage the traffic, but her staff is working hard.

“I have a good staff. They are working tirelessly to do that screening,” she said of the ongoing testing efforts.

Staff wear a lot of personal protective equipment when they go outdoors to conduct testing, and it gets hot, Vasconcellos added.

Hana Health also does contact tracing and calls folks to get their vaccines. She said the staff has gone “more than the extra mile” to protect the community.

Longtime East Maui resident John Blumer-Buell said he and his wife are vaccinated but are “being careful” if they go out. He called the nearly 20 recent cases “very disturbing.”

Blumer-Buell added that businesses in Hana have been careful and mindful as well.

At a weekly Farmers Market, people need to wear masks, and masks as well as customer numbers are monitored at Hasegawa General Store and at Hana Ranch Store.

Officials from the Maui District Health Office say the cases in Hana are among families, including at least one family who had traveled and got sick when they returned home. Another family came down with the virus and hung out with several extended family members who also had positive test results. From there a lot of other families within the community started testing positive, officials said on Wednesday.

But as cases increase and families need to quarantine, community members have stepped up and said they are not afraid and need to “handle it the best way we can.”

One of those Hana residents is Lei Perry, who founded Project Ho’omana in 2020 with her high school-aged daughters, Tyra-Li, 17, and Pristine, 15, all of whom have been on the “front lines” of the pandemic in Hana helping others.

The project actually began to bring awareness to the dangers of drinking and using drugs and morphed into a community outreach effort. They have done more than 100 distributions in the community, including for the county and Maui Food Bank, passing out food or other items such as masks. The teen girls have logged more than 900 hours of volunteer work.

Lei Perry’s husband, Mahoe, is also there to help.

“We do the store runs, we check the mail, we pick up homework from the school,” Lei Perry said of their services for East Maui families who are under quarantine.

Currently nine homes from Keanae to Koali are being serviced by the volunteers, she said. Volunteers have no contact with sick residents, as they leave items in designated areas.

Perry asked those who need help to contact them and to not be afraid or shy.

“Please reach out to us, and we are willing to help,” she said.

For the family, it’s a labor of love for the people who’ve been there for them.

“This is our way to give back to the community who has helped me and my husband raise my children,” she said.

A donation drive for East Maui residents is being held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today at the Kahului Shopping Center parking lot near to Burger King. Perry said that they are looking for paper plates, as she’s been told by sick, quarantined residents that it’s exhausting to wash dishes. The group is also looking for donations of disposable masks, since it is not only for the families affected but those in Hana who need one.

Other items include paper towels, laundry soap, dish washing soap, toilet paper, trash bags, Ziplock storage bags and disposable utensils. Also needed are disposable gloves, sanitizers and disinfectant wipes.

No food will be accepted due to different dietary needs, but gift cards to supermarkets or major retailers will be accepted.

“We know that East Maui is a resilient community,” volunteer event organizer Mahina Martin said in a news release Tuesday. “Saturday’s Kokua Hana donation drive is just one way many others can help support those in need during these unprecedented times.”

Claire Kamalu Carroll, who is also assisting with the East Maui distribution efforts, said that Hana businesses are also suffering along with residents who may still be out of work. She said some residents are still having issues with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

With the cases climbing and the delta variant spreading, “it’s like we are back to ground zero,” said Carroll, who asked that people not gather, social distance and practice all the safety protocols as they did at the start of the pandemic.

“We really have to be more proactive,” Carroll said.

She referenced comments from state Health Director Dr. Libby Char, who has said that the kuleana is on the residents.

“It’s on us,” Carroll said.

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

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