The Latest: 4 Deaths, 160 New Cases; Another Death At Hilo Veterans Home Brings Toll To 15

Sep 17, 2020

Updated: 9/17/2020, 3:07 p.m.

The Hawaii Department of Health today reported four more deaths from COVID-19 and 160 new cases. The daily infections are in the triple digits again having fallen below 100 earlier in the week. 

Thinking new cases are generally on a decline, the state announced it will reopen to Mainland tourists, sparing them from the 14-day quarantine if they have a negative pre-flight test for COVID.

The city is also expected to announce plans to further ease the restrictions under the Oahu's stay-at-home, work-from-home order that is in effect through Sept. 23.

Today's latest counts bring the total death toll to 107 and cases statewide to 11,105. 

There have now been 10,015 cases on Oahu, 623 on Hawaii Island, 381 for Maui County, and 58 on Kauai. Twenty-eight residents have been diagnosed out of state. 

Yesterday's three deaths were all on Oahu. The two men and one woman all had underlying medical conditions, were hospitalized and were in their 70s.

Tuesday's one death was an Oahu man in his 60s with underlying medical conditions who had been hospitalized.

The department said there were no new deaths Monday, but a total of 25 deaths associated with a positive result are pending receipt of records. Ten are pending a final medical examiner report.

It's not immediately clear if any are related to the mounting deaths at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo.

The Utah-based Avalon Health Care Group, which operates the veterans home, reported another death yesterday. The fatality brings the toll at the facility to 15 residents,

Five veterans home residents are hospitalized at the Hilo Medical Center and 29 are being cared for at the nursing home's COVID-designated area.

So far 68 residents and 30 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the veterans home.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and state Department of Health are investigating the rising deaths and infections at the facility.

A VA team is expected back at the nursing home today to help bring the spreading virus under control.

Governor announces new leadership team for COVID response

Following harsh criticism of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and departures of two top state health department officials, Gov. David Ige yesterday announced a new team to lead his administration's actions in the pandemic.

Maj. Gen. Ken Hara, head of the Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency, continues his role as incident commander and leads the partnership among federal, state and county agencies addressing COVID-19.

Hara had spared with state Epidemiologist Sarah Park over the state's contact tracing and testing efforts. Hara had offered the help of the Hawaii National Guard for contract tracing earlier in the pandemic, but Park had rejected the offer.

Park was replaced last month after deficiencies emerged with the contact tracing program. She was also criticized for limiting testing to conserve resources, although the health department had been given about $50 million in federal funding for testing and contact tracing.

Dr. Libby Char is the new director of the state Department of Health, succeeding Bruce Anderson who retired this week. It was under Anderson's watch that COVID-19 cases surged while he defended the number of contact tracers and publicly argued with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell over the adequacy of testing.

Char will be responsible for the management of the state’s public health programs and the collaboration between state, county, and private healthcare partners.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green is heading the pre-travel testing program, which includes seeking more partners to administer the tests and reviewing new testing options. Green will also oversee planning for the state’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy. 

Green had also criticized the health department's contact tracing and testing efforts, saying it fell short of what was needed to keep the virus at bay.

Dr. Virginia Pressler, former director of the state Department of Health, is volunteering to lead the Laulima Alliance, a team of public and private sector interests created to ensure all have a voice in policy making and programs responding to the pandemic.

“This new leadership team gives us a stronger operational structure, stronger leadership, and clears the way for stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors,” said Ige. 

Surge testing to further expand to Neighbor Islands

The counties and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are working to expand surge testing on the Neighbor Islands. 

Ken Hara, director  of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said the surge testing on Oahu showed a positive rate of less than 1%, indicating that COVID-19 is not out of control. 

He said with fewer positive cases found through lab tests and with contact tracing decreasing, "things are moving in the right direction," he said.

The surge testing registration website, doineedacovid19test.com, lists locations at the Westside Pharmacy in Hanapepe on Kauai today through Wednesday, Sept. 23, and at the Pahoa Pharmacy in Pahoa on the Big Island, also today through Wednesday. Check the website for times.

This is a developing story. Please check back for upates. Editor's note: We’d like to hear how you’re coping with the latest COVID-19 developments and the state's phased reopening. You can call our talkback line at 808-792-8217. Or e-mail us at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.