Yesterday, we mentioned that one of the latest cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Japan was a man in his 60s who recently traveled to Hawaii.
While the news was certainly alarming, with few details available, we had little to choice but to wait for the next report.
A few hours later, the New York Times published what appears to be a deeply-sourced story filed from Honolulu. In it, the reporter appears to have pinpointed some of the contacts that the unnamed Japanese man made during his trip to Hawaii – though the most critical piece of information, the source of the man’s infection, has yet to be ascertained.
The piece begins from the perspective of Chantelle Pajarillo, a Hawaiian woman spending a long weekend at the famous resort on Waikiki Beach, when she saw a local news report claiming the infected patient may have stayed at the very same resort during his recent trip to the island.
She immediately requested a package of disinfectant wipes and started “wiping down everything.”
“I wiped down everything I knew they would touch: the sliding door, the refrigerator, countertops and the bathroom,” Ms. Pajarillo said on Saturday as she walked back to the pool at the Grand Waikikian, toting a stack of towels. “I’m a germaphobe myself and I have three little kids so I want to make sure I take every precaution.”
According to the NYT, neither Hawaiian health officials nor Japanese health authorities has any idea whether he picked up the virus in Hawaii, in Japan, or possibly while traveling to Hawaii (the option that health officials suspect is the most likely).
Hawaii health officials were working swiftly over the weekend to find anyone who might have had contact with the Japanese couple, who had also visited the island of Maui. Health authorities said the couple, both in their 60s, was not diagnosed until they returned to Japan, but the husband began showing symptoms while still staying in one of Hawaii’s most popular tourist neighborhoods.
But the NYT reporter did find a local resident named John Fujiwara who believes the Japanese patient is a friend of his whom he refued to name. The man recently visited Hawaii and met Fujiwara for a coffee before exchanging gifts of chocolates.
Fujiwara said he reached out to a local paper and Hawaiian state health officials with his story. They told him not to panic, and when he offered to self-quarantine, the state said he should go about his day as normal, but report any suspicious symptoms.
Let’s back up for a second: We suspect we’re not the only ones who were surprised – and not exactly reassured – by the state’s response to this man.
True, he could be wrong. But isn’t it better to be safe than sorry when a simple one-line email from the state could have put this man in a self-quarantine?
Instead, the man says he plans to go out with his girlfriend as normal because he “has it in writing from the state.”
But at least one local resident said he believed that he had spent time with the Japanese man who was later confirmed with the virus. The resident, John Fujiwara, 52, said the friend that he had visited with for about half an hour on Feb. 4 had the same travel itinerary as the man described by state health officials; he also lives in the same city and is also in his 60s. Mr. Fujiwara said he had not been able to reach his friend since he left Hawaii on Feb. 7.
The man seemed healthy, if a bit tired, when they had met to drink coffee, catch up and exchange chocolates as gifts, Mr. Fujiwara said. The man had spent that morning shopping in Chinatown, and had told him that he planned to attend a Japanese language event at a local grocery store immediately after their visit.
Mr. Fujiwara said that he had reached out to state health officials, and had offered to isolate himself after reading a report about the man in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
In an email he shared with The New York Times, a disease intervention specialist with the Hawaii Department of Health did not confirm that Mr. Fujiwara’s friend was the one who had been diagnosed, but told him that he should contact the department if he had any symptoms before Tuesday, which would be two weeks after he saw his friend — the maximum incubation period for coronavirus.
“I plan to go to dinner with my girlfriend tonight, unless things change, specifically because I have it in writing from the State of Hawaii Department of Health to continue my daily routine,” Mr. Fujiwara said.
For some unexplained reason, state health officials believe the infected Japanese patient didn’t have any “prolonged, close contact with Hawaii residents.” What we want to know: How can they be so certain of this while claiming to know so little about the man’s movements?
Janice Okubo, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Health, said that the man who was confirmed with the virus “is not believed to have had any prolonged, close contact with Hawaii residents,” but that health officials were continuing to investigate.
Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist, said the man had most likely been exposed to the virus before leaving Japan or while traveling to Hawaii. He and his wife, who was also confirmed on Saturday with the virus but did not show symptoms while in Hawaii, arrived on Maui on Jan. 28. The man was also symptom-free in Maui, but after the couple moved to Honolulu, on Oahu, on Feb. 3, he began showing signs of a cold.
Outside health experts said people who traveled with the man were most likely to have contracted the hyper-contagious virus (hardly a surprise given the situation on the ‘Diamond Princess’ and now this new cruise ship situation in Cambodia).
Aubree Gordon, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said she agreed with Hawaiian health officials that people who had traveled with the man were at greatest risk, though anyone who touched surfaces shortly after he did – such as a faucet or toilet handle – could also be at risk.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of cases like this popping up, where people come into a place and get diagnosed there, or leave and we find out after the fact that they’re sick,” Professor Gordon said.
So far, 16 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the US, while officials from the CDC have warned that more are expected, particularly in California and Texas where the Americans who traveled aboard the evacuation flights are being quarantined and examined.
Surprisingly, we’ve heard little about efforts to contain the virus in Hawaii. None of the airports screening Americans traveling back from infected parts of the world are in the state. It’s without a doubt a point of vulnerability given the high numbers of travelers from China and Japan who visit.
But given what we know so far, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more cases popping up in the state.