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Even with fewer COVID cases, caution still needed

Viewpoint

As an intensive care physician and medical staff leader, I have had a front row seat to the spectacle that has been the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has changed my work and my life — in ways I would never have anticipated. Most recently, I have watched as the rest of the world has left masking, hand washing and social distancing behind in pursuit of a “return to normal.” I have to admit — I am envious of their relaxed attitude. However, as much as I would love to see us return to a life where we do not have to worry about how our behaviors and daily activities can have unintended consequences to others, my training tells me that I would be fooling myself.

The stress experienced by health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike anything we have experienced previously. You, our Maui community, helped carry us through these times and we are grateful. The after-effects of this experience have led to a widespread exodus from the health care profession by people from all areas of the industry, particularly those who have been involved in bedside care. People are retiring earlier, cutting back hours or changing to less stressful jobs and I completely understand their reasons. Unfortunately, as a result, staffing shortages in hospitals across the state and country are now the norm. Yet the pandemic and its effects still loom.

We have just emerged from the surge created by the omicron BA.2 variant, and already the BA.4 and BA.5 variants are dominating our state. These two variants account for over 90 percent of the infections on the Mainland as of last week, and currently comprise nearly 70 percent of infections here in Hawaii. These new variants are even more contagious, leading to high community positivity and increased hospitalizations in South Africa, Europe and the U.S. Mainland. We can expect the same to happen here in our islands as they have become the dominant strains in Hawaii.

All our efforts over the last two years have been about saving lives — period. The mandates, masking/handwashing/distancing policies, vaccines — everything was aimed at saving lives from COVID, and keeping the hospitals from being overwhelmed, so we can continue to care for everyone who needs us, whether sick with COVID or experiencing other health issues.

As a physician that has been on the front line from the beginning of the pandemic, I implore you to please protect our community and our health care system in Hawaii — wear a mask when you are around people you do not live with. Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer before and after touching shared surfaces like door handles and shopping carts. Maintain your distance from others, especially when indoors. These behaviors can feel inconvenient, but that inconvenience pales in comparison to the importance of slowing the spread of these new variants and preventing our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. Your health care workers have been here for you through these difficult times. Please help us by not letting up with precautions. We need you now more than ever to do the right things to keep everyone safe.

* Dr. Mike Shea is the chief medical director of Maui Health.

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