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Molokai Clusters Identified, Expanded

Graph courtesy of Dept. of Health

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

As of last Friday, 24 COVID-19 cases on Molokai in the last two weeks have been identified as part of two separate clusters. The total number of cases since the pandemic have risen to 76 as of Sunday, according to the Dept. of Health. Nineteen cases are related to a Molokai General Hospital construction cluster that began when a Maui contractor working at the site tested positive on May 11. Five cases have been identified by DOH contact tracers as a separate restaurant cluster.

Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang said last Friday he believes the clusters to be “contained,” meaning contact tracers had found no “surprises” or outliers from known clusters, or new clusters, for several days. But that doesn’t mean the case numbers won’t continue to grow. Household members who have already been exposed may continue to test positive in the coming days, he said.

The 24 positive cases are currently in quarantine, as well as those who were exposed — meaning those who were within six feet of a COVID-19-positive individual for 15 minutes or more, said Pang.

“I’m asking the people we isolated, to stay isolated,” he said. “If they break quarantine, we’re going to have a mess.”

Those who are fully vaccinated, however, don’t need to quarantine even if they’ve been exposed.

Pang said linking the Molokai cases into two clusters took some time.

“At first, we saw the cases build up,” he said. “We knew of the one event with the workers at the hospital but we saw two more outbreaks and we couldn’t link them. [Then] we linked one of the restaurants to the hospital cluster.”

The second grouping of five restaurant cases remains unlinked to the construction cluster.

Arita Poulson General Contracting, the company whose employee initially tested positive on May 11, issued an apology to the Molokai community last week and shared additional information surrounding the cases.

“First and foremost, we owe the Molokai community and Molokai General Hospital an apology for the fear and confusion that has occurred,” APGC said in a statement. “Our respect for the privacy of our employees was our initial concern. We realize by not being transparent at the beginning, this led to misinformation, confusion and understandable fear.”

The company said the employee had received a Moderna vaccination dose on April 30 on Molokai and the employee initially believed the mild symptoms were an effect of the vaccine and did not report it to supervisors. He continued to work and returned to Maui on May 7, the company stated.

“Once back on Maui, the employee’s symptoms worsened over the weekend and he reported this to his supervisor,” the statement read. “We had him get tested and shut down the job site on May 10 and initiated contact tracing while we waited for his test results. His test for COVID returned positive on May 11. All APGC employees and subcontractors on the job site were tested in cooperation with Queens Health Systems. In total through testing, two APGC employees tested positive. Three subcontractors tested positive and were asymptomatic.”

The company said it has strict protocol in place in compliance with CDC as well as local guidelines but has worked to strengthen its COVID procedures since the incident. In addition to sanitation and temperature check policies, the company “strongly discourage[s] unsafe social behaviors outside of work hours.”

“Over the past week, addressing these cases on Molokai [has] been a priority,” said Rep. Lynn DeCoite as part of the APGC statement. “The Hawaii Department of Health, Molokai General Hospital, the County of Maui and the construction company have all worked to address the cluster and to implement new policies and work safety guidelines going forward. The safety, health and wellbeing of Molokai residents and our communities across Maui County is of utmost importance for all involved.”

APGC said it provided “temporary housing, PPE and food delivery to the affected employees,” along with checking on them and their families regularly.

“We also continue to provide support to the subcontractors who were affected and will continue to provide any support they need,” according to the company.

Pang urged residents to get vaccinated.

“Get it now, everybody, I don’t want to repeat this same scenario a couple months from now,” he said.

“Transmission of COVID-19 can happen anytime unvaccinated people gather in social situations or in work environments,” said Mayor Michael Victorino in the APGC statement. “Arita Poulson is a longtime Hawaii company and a good corporate citizen. I want to thank company officials for working closely with the Department of Health to protect their employees and the residents of Molokai from additional transmission from this cluster.”

The Dept. of Health said Molokai General Hospital is continuing to offer free COVID-19 testing to the community.

Hospital President Janice Kalanihuia said last week, the hospital tested more than 250 people May 12-18, with 124 of those tests administered at a May 18 drive-thru testing event.

“Continue to wear your mask and keep socially-distanced when with those whose vaccination status you do not know,” Kalanihuia wrote in a community update on May 20. “We are almost out of this and we are all responsible for keeping ourselves and others safe.”

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