Hawaii's most inaccessible island is America's last Covid-19-free county, experts caution vulnerable residents
While the US has struggled to cope with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, losing more than 256,000 people — a secluded community on Hawaii's most "inaccessible" island has emerged as the last Covid-19-free county in the entire nation. It is an irony that the same island was used to keep patients of leprosy isolated a century-and-half ago.
Twelve residents of the Kalaupapa settlement of Kalawao County, which is located on the island of Moloka’i — the fifth and most populated of the eight major islands that constitute the Hawaiian islands archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, have so far found themselves untouched by the virus that has otherwise affected more than 12 million in the US and left its economy in turmoil. The county has not recorded a single case of infection or death even as the pandemic reached its peak this year.
ABC7, which made the revelation on Sunday, November 22, said in the 1800s, scores of people suffering from infectious diseases were sent to the settlement in Kalawao County which was then just set up. It said that in 1856, the Kingdom of Hawaii had brought a law under which patients with leprosy or Hansen’s Disease were sent to Moloka’i.
The Kalaupapa settlement, which is located on a peninsula, is surrounded by the ocean on three sides and 1,600-foot sea cliffs obstructing access to the rest of the island. Kalaupapa was "chosen to isolate people with, what was at that time, an incurable illness. The peninsula was remote and fairly inaccessible", according to the US National Park Service.
Hawaii ended the isolation laws in 1969 and promised the isolated patients lifelong health and social care and the option to stay in the settlement if they wanted to.
The report then said that in the middle of May, the US’ 3,100-plus counties reported no cases of Covid-19. That number came down to only six just five months later and now, with cases rising alarmingly across the country — 160,000 cases a day nationally and 16,481 in Hawaii — Kalawao has remained without a single case. The revelation came as Hawaiian officials came up with new rules restricting pandemic travel ahead of the holiday season.
Top official cautions
Dr Glenn Wasserman, chief of communications at Hawaii’s health department, however, cautioned against blindly trusting the statistics. He told ABC7 that despite the good news, the area is considered to be “medically underserved” by the department of health and human services.
Kalawao, like many communities that are geographically isolated, hasn’t seen much of Covid-19 testing. Wasserman ordered a few tests after coming to know that local individuals had come into contact with those from outside communities. The results produced negative results, ABC7 said.
With the average age of the people at 86 and the existence of several medical conditions, patients left at Kalaupapa were vulnerable to the virus. The settlement hence put strict policies in place to shield them. Patients and staff members are required to put themselves into quarantine if they go out. Social distancing and wearing of masks were also enforced.
"We felt that that approach was much more reliable than lab testing everyone who came in," Wasserman was quoted as saying. He said without testing to confirm that no one has had the infection, it's possible an asymptomatic individual came back to the settlement and quarantined so that the infection did not spread.
Earlier this year, local people of Hawaii resented arrivals of tourists for the holidays, thanks to low airfares, saying it puts their health at risk and cited the island’s ill-equipped healthcare system would make things worse.