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Running the COVID-19 marathon into a new year

OUR COUNTY

As our new year begins, Maui County is experiencing what the World Health Organization predicted would be a “tsunami of cases” of COVID-19. The highly transmissible omicron variant is pushing our new daily infection counts to record numbers.

During the first three days of 2022, the Hawaii Department of Health reported 8,871 new daily cases statewide — an average of 2,597 cases per day.

Here in Maui County, we’ve watched our test positivity rate climb from a stable average of under 2 percent to above 16 percent within a few weeks. My administration responded to testing demand by distributing free at-home testing kits to residents and expanding our nationally recognized testing program to include drive-thru COVID-19 testing six days a week at the War Memorial Stadium parking lot in Wailuku. (Register at alohaclear.com.)

As with previous variants, most hospitalized COVID patients who need intensive care are unvaccinated. While medical experts believe omicron is less lethal than previous variants, its highly contagious nature has the potential to overwhelm our medical facilities. Because of this, my administration remains in constant contact with Maui Memorial Medical Center and other health care facilities to determine if, and when, additional public health restrictions are appropriate.

Because omicron is so transmissible, medical experts predict the current surge will peak quickly and won’t stick around for long. Those who are fully vaccinated seem to experience mild symptoms, but two vaccine shots won’t prevent infection as effectively as they did for previous variants. Vaccinated people experience fewer, milder symptoms for shorter periods, but the unvaccinated fare less well. Another concern is that two of three “go-to” therapeutic COVID-19 monoclonal antibodies are ineffective in treating the omicron variant.

After nearly two years of coping with COVID-19, the people of Maui County know what to do. The best protection comes from full vaccination and, if it’s time, a booster shot. Everyone should avoid large gatherings, especially indoors. Keep your distance from those outside of your household and wash your hands frequently. Stay home if you don’t feel well and isolate if you suspect you might be infected. Get tested and quarantine if your results are positive.

Because omicron is so contagious, many physicians now recommend wearing disposable masks like KN95 masks or surgical masks. Layered cloth masks offer less protection, but are still safer than wearing nothing.

When the delta variant came to Maui County this summer, we nearly overwhelmed our limited health care capacity and our death count doubled within six months. No matter the variant, COVID-19 is a serious disease that has killed 107 of our neighbors to date.

We’ve been fighting this disease for a long time and it’s tiring. If we’ve learned anything about navigating a pandemic, it’s that the process is more like a marathon than a sprint.

COVID-19 came to Hawaii on March 6, 2020, the day an Oahu resident returned sick from a Mexico cruise. By March 15, the state Department of Education announced it would extend spring break by an extra week. On March 25, I issued stay-at-home, work-at-home orders for the County of Maui and the following day, Gov. David Ige ordered everyone entering the State of Hawaii to self-quarantine for 14 days, or for the duration of their stay. So began our lengthy and unpredictable COVID-19 marathon.

Hope arrived at the end of 2020 in the form of the Pfizer vaccine. Maui County residents demanded their fair share as early vaccine shipments trickled into Hawaii, and we watched COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline in early 2021. Our long-awaited return to pre-pandemic life seemed to be within view, but vaccine hesitancy and the emergence of new variants changed all of that.

I know we’re all feeling some pandemic fatigue, but marathon runners will tell you that completing the race is always the toughest part. Stay in the race and keep the faith that we will reach the finish line eventually. Remember, sometimes the most difficult roads lead to the best destinations.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend.

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