Paradise lost: How Hawaii went from COVID-19 star to cautionary tale

But 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. When the state was locked down and caseloads were smaller, a key to Hawaii’s success was quick testing and contact tracing to find people exposed to the virus. But failure to build up that capacity for reopening, along with growing public complacency around social distancing measures, allowed the outbreak to spiral out of control, say numerous state officials — including many from Ige’s party.

Now the state, once hailed as a Covid-19 success story, has become a cautionary tale for other parts of the country that are preparing to open schools and loosen economic restrictions as infection rates come down. For public health experts and Hawaii officials, the state’s worsening outbreak is a stark reminder that this virus will easily exploit gaps in defenses.

“Hawaii was in an optimal situation, set up for success because it’s an island,” said Cyrus Shahpar, a former emergency response leader at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now leads the outbreak tracker Covid Exit Strategy. “But you need to have ongoing eyes on the virus and be ready to react early when you see a handful of cases and have enough of a workforce to deal with it.”