As Hawaii More Fully Reopens to Tourists, Hilo Jail Sees Case Surge

The National Guard is helping with testing and security to control the outbreak at the correctional center, in Hilo, the Big Island’s largest city.,

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Just as Hawaii more fully reopens to tourists, a jail is jolted by a surge in cases.

An eruption of the Kilauea volcano last December. The volcano is just one of the many tourist draws on Hawaii's Big Island.
An eruption of the Kilauea volcano last December. The volcano is just one of the many tourist draws on Hawaii’s Big Island. Credit…Janice Wei/National Park Service, via Associated Press

By Ann Hinga Klein and Maura Turcotte

  • June 9, 2021, 8:40 p.m. ET

An overcrowded jail in Hawaii that had avoided Covid-19 outbreaks during the first 15 months of the pandemic has been overwhelmed by the virus — with more than one-third of its inmates infected — just as the state is more fully reopening to tourists.

The outbreak corresponds with a significant rise in Covid-19 cases in Hawaii County, or the Big Island, where the jail is situated: There has been a 141-percent increase in infections during the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database.

The National Guard is helping with testing and security to control the outbreak at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo, the Big Island’s largest city, where inmates started fires last week as part of a protest, advocacy groups for inmates said.

Public health officials have warned for months that the nation’s correctional facilities will continue to suffer from large-scale Covid infections until the vast majority of inmates and staff are vaccinated.

And because the average person stays in jail for only about 10 days, the virus has been able to spread rapidly between the community and jails during the course of the pandemic.

The reluctance among inmates and staff in the nation’s prisons and jails to get inoculated has complicated vaccination efforts, including in Hawaii.

At the Hilo jail, there are no precise figures available for vaccinations, but as few as 25 percent of inmates and 50 percent of staff have consented to be vaccinated, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is also an emergency room physician, said in an interview. The result, he said, is potential community spread through both inmates and staff.

“If there was a continuous simmering outbreak of Covid in the one place where very few people are getting vaccinated, it can break back into the community,” Mr. Green said.

The jail outbreak has led to some uncertainty about reopening. For much of the pandemic, travelers have been required to quarantine for at least 10 days upon arrival.

But arriving tourists can now skip quarantine by showing proof of a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of their arrival. Beginning next Tuesday, people will no longer have to show negative tests to travel from one of the state’s islands to another. Demand for hotel rooms has increased more than 800 percent, according to state tourism data from April, the latest available.

As of Wednesday morning, 138 inmates and 18 staff have been infected in the Hilo jail, officials said.

There are currently about 340 inmates at the jail — about 120 more than its capacity. Inmates routinely must sleep on floors.

“This is scary because what’s happening — I don’t think it’s just going to be contained to that one place, because it’s going to leak out into the community where the guards live,” said Kat Brady, the coordinator of an advocacy group, the Community Alliance on Prisons.

Dr. Green said the state is considering prohibiting unvaccinated guards from having contact with prisoners in the future.

He said correctional institutions were among the “last pockets of risk” for Covid outbreaks, and that the lack of priority in reducing crowding and increasing vaccination rates was shortsighted.

“People are more inclined to spend money on ‘good citizens’ versus those who have lost their way,” he said. “But outbreaks will affect us all.”

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