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County looks to fresh start after trying year

OUR COUNTY

Some people have described 2020 as a “dumpster fire,” but few know it literally began that way on Maui.

During the 12-hour period between 6 p.m., Dec. 31, 2019 and 6 a.m. Jan. 1, 2020, the Maui Fire Department responded to seven dumpster fires. An omen of things to come?

In early February, the first word came of an international outbreak of a new coronavirus detected in Wuhan, China, in December. By March 6, Hawaii confirmed its first case of COVID-19 — an Oahu man returning from a Mexico cruise. Maui’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed eight days later.

By mid-March there were 37 new cases statewide, including nine in Maui County. This prompted Gov. David Ige to issue orders for a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving in Hawaii. On March 22, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and I announced stay-at-home, work-from-home orders for our respective islands through April 30. Most folks voluntarily remained at home for much longer, leaving only for essential activities.

April brought the first confirmed infections in Moloka’i and Hana. Deeply concerned about limited health care resources in both communities, we responded immediately with full sanitation crews, widespread testing and reinforcing stay-at-home orders. We also worked with the state to temporarily restrict Hana-bound traffic to residents only. Thankfully, the people of Hana and Moloka’i did their part to successfully quell the spread.

By early May, Hawaii had sufficiently “flattened the curve” for Gov. Ige to start the first phase of reopening. Most Maui County residents followed mandatory public health guidelines requiring face coverings in public, social distancing, frequent hand-washing and avoiding groups. As a result, Maui Nui enjoyed a low infection rate (below 2 percent) throughout the summer and early fall.

With Oahu cases on the rise in August, Gov. Ige reinstated a partial quarantine for interisland travel from Honolulu to guard the Neighbor Islands. In the seven months from March through September, new infections in Maui County totaled just 384.

In mid-October, the state launched its COVID-19 pretest program for Mainland arrivals. Coincidentally, but unrelated to tourism, Lana’i recorded its first coronavirus case a week later — a health care worker returned from Oahu with the virus. Within six days, Lana’i’s count had jumped to 79. We responded immediately with sanitation, widespread testing and a 14-day stay-at-home order followed by a safer-at-home period. Rapid intervention and community cooperation successfully suppressed the Lana’i surge as well.

As more Maui County residents returned to work, we saw gradual growth in new COVID cases. According to our medical advisers, the vast majority of new cases were linked to community spread. During the final three months of 2020, there were 665 new infections, including 382 during December alone. The large spike was fueled by residents gathering to eat, drink and socialize together without masks or distancing. To contain the spread, I asked Gov. Ige to approve a two-week closure for bars until Dec. 26. We also urged everyone to limit holiday celebrations to household members only.

Since COVID-19 came to Maui County, my top priority has been the health of our residents. We’ve worked hard to balance public and economic health. But when community well-being is at risk, we must institute stronger public health rules to safeguard the people of Maui Nui.

As we await the full rollout of vaccines, the best way to prevent new infections is to follow public health guidelines. It will be months before the vaccine will make everyday life safe again, and until then, it’s our kuleana to protect one another.

For most of us, 2020 has been more bitter than sweet, but “Lucky we live Hawaii” still rings true. This weekend’s Maui News features a mahalo ad to thank those who stepped up in big and little ways to help Maui County persevere through this “dumpster fire” of a year.

We welcome the start of a new year to recover and rebuild our community in the spirit of unity and cooperation. On behalf of Joycelyn, me and our entire family, we wish you a healthy and prosperous 2021.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column usually appears on the first and third Fridays of the month.

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