Hawaii Is Now Learning the Hard Lessons That Most Other States Learned Earlier

Hawaii Governor David Ige speaks at a community meeting in Pahoa, Hawaii, May 7, 2018.
(Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

Last month I wrote that the media wasn’t just over-hyping Democratic governors’ management of the pandemic, but that they were over-hyping the wrong Democratic governors. If you measured successful management of the coronavirus simply by the number of cases and the number of deaths, arguably the most successful governor in the country was Hawaii’s David Ige.

It’s not hard to see why some Democrats or media voices might hesitate to celebrate Ige as a role model. The governor implemented a 14-day quarantine for all visitors and residents returning to Hawaii back on March 21, more or less killing the state’s tourism industry. (Few travelers can afford to fly to Hawaii and then spend two weeks in a hotel room before enjoying themselves.) Last year, the Hawaiian unemployment rate was 2.8 percent; it hit 23.8 percent in May, and is now “only” 13.1 percent.

Beyond that, Hawaii’s low number of cases in the early months of the pandemic may have had more to do with geography than with any particular state policy. New Zealand also had considerable success in preventing the spread; it’s just easier to keep potentially contagious asymptomatic people out of an isolated island community than a major metropolitan city with lots of air travel and rail lines and commuters. Even though Hawaii has interstate highways, it’s not easy to get to — which makes keeping potential virus carriers out much easier.

And now, as caseloads, hospitalizations, and deaths are slowly but steadily declining in most states, Hawaii is seeing a dramatic increase in cases. A few days ago, Politico noted, “Hawaii’s control of the coronavirus has swiftly unraveled this summer, transforming what was the nation’s best-performing state into one of the worst . . . a ten-fold surge in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations over the last month has triggered new shutdown orders and a scramble to bolster the public health measures state officials neglected before reopening.”

The uncomfortable truth is that luck is a factor. Any given person who gets infected could have minimal contact with others or inadvertently set up a super-spreader event. Some studies indicate that between 10 and 20 percent of infected people are responsible for 80 percent of the coronavirus’s spread. States can enact policies aimed at minimizing the spread — attempting to prevent large crowd sizes and close contact between people and keeping people out of confined spaces with poor ventilation — but random chance and dozens of variables will always be a factors in super-spreader events.

A clear-eyed look at the numbers ought to serve up giant slices of humble pie for any governor who boasted his state had the pandemic under control. Andrew Cuomo continues to take victory laps, even though his state has twice as many deaths from COVID-19 as the next highest state, next-door New Jersey. New York’s death toll from the virus is larger than the death toll in the 30 bottom states combined. New York state has 5.86 percent of the total U.S. population and 17 percent of U.S. deaths from the coronavirus. The allegedly notorious Florida has 6.47 percent of the U.S. population and 6 percent of the deaths. But the Sunshine State may be better at preventing deaths than preventing the spread of the virus; Florida has had about 165,000 more confirmed cases than New York.

And as Hawaii is learning, vast oceans, travel restrictions and strict quarantine policies can protect you . . . right up until the day they don’t.

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