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Hawaii hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID patients

People at a waterfall in Honolulu, Hawaii.Michelle Mishina Kunz/NYT

At the emergency department of Hilo Medical Center on the island of Hawaii Wednesday, patients lay on beds in the hallway as staff members scrambled to find space in other parts of the hospital.

“Today is the fullest we’ve been in over 15 years — maybe even ever,” said Elena Cabatu, director of public affairs at the hospital. Nurses “are almost beside themselves at this point,” she said.

Across the islands of Hawaii, hospitals are facing an acute shortage of beds and medical staff as the delta variant causes a surge far worse than any the state experienced during earlier waves of the pandemic.

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By virtue of its geographical isolation and stringent government restrictions, Hawaii maintains its position as the state with the lowest rates of COVID cases and deaths. But in recent months, as restrictions have loosened and travel has resumed, case numbers have skyrocketed.

On July 1, the state’s seven-day average was 40 new cases daily. By Aug. 19, the new case reports had peaked at 729 a day, according to a New York Times database, more than double the state’s previous high in September.

And, with just 55% of the state’s population fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times database, health care providers worry that the worst is yet to come.

Models show that the state could reach a daily average of 1,500 COVID hospitalizations by the end of September, said Hilton Raethel, president of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii. The state normally maintains just 2,000 staffed hospital beds across the islands.

“The numbers don’t work, obviously,” said Raethel. Options for obtaining additional beds are limited. “It’s not like New York where you can truck people or beds in from New Jersey. We’re a five-hour flight away from the mainland.”

Over 200 health care workers have been dispatched from the mainland to assist the strapped hospitals. Three hundred more will be on the way next week.

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At the same time, officials are rushing to reinstate restrictions to temper the surge. On Monday, Mayor Rick Blangiardi of Honolulu prohibited indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people for at least 28 days.

And at a news conference Monday, Gov. David Ige discouraged tourists from coming.

“It’s not a good time to travel to the islands,” he said. “The visitors who choose to come to the island will not have the typical kind of holiday that they expect to get when they visit Hawaii.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.