A Hawaii Doctor’s Plea to Visitors

I get it. We’re all tired of the pandemic. And, Hawaii might seem like a great place to come visit right now. A little get-away, but within the U.S., so you won’t be stuck in an international location if things get really bad with the delta variant. They require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. You get a sense of security knowing people you are traveling with are likely to be COVID negative. Except that sense of security is false.

I’m an ophthalmologist here in Honolulu. So, I’m a physician, a medical doctor, but not on the front lines by any means. That isn’t to say I’m disconnected from what’s going on. My medical practice is in the outpatient medical office building of Queen’s Medical Center. I have privileges there and care for many, many of the staff – nurses, transporters, respiratory therapists and physicians. I’m also a mother to 3 kids – 12, 9, and 7 years old. I moved to Hawaii 13 years ago and love it. I love sharing my island life with people.

family of five on Hawaii beach

Tourism is the backbone of our economy and it pains me to see local business which cater to tourists close their doors during the past year and a half. But here a couple reasons you might want to rethink your trip out here.

Our numbers have surged and our ICU beds are full

Here’s the thing – we are the most geographically isolated community in the world – 3000 miles away from the closest community in California. Our daily COVID-19 averages were running in the double digits prior to this surge. 35-45 cases a day were the norm. Now, our cases are between 500-750/day.

The delta variant is hitting us extremely hard. I’ve talked with physicians and nursing staff and all echo the same sentiment “it’s bad”. The strain on our resources is the worst that it’s been during the past 18 months. Our ICU beds are full. Patients are now being put into overflow post-op recovery room beds. Queen’s Medical Center West just declared an internal state of emergency – not enough beds or nurses. Makeshift ERs are being set up in parking lots reminiscent of NYC during the brunt of the pandemic.

hawaii newspaper article showing ICU beds are full headline

This is happening at all of the large hospitals on my island of Oahu – Queen’s Medical Center and Straub. The resources are on the neighbor islands like the Big Island, Maui and Kauai are much more limited. This means, if you are in an accident or fall sick during your vacation here, there may not be space for you in the hospital. It means we will have difficulty caring for you if you have a stroke, a heart attack or involved in an accident.

All of mine and my husband’s eye surgeries at the biggest hospital in the state (Queen’s Medical Center) were just canceled this week. This is so they can divert the nursing staff and the beds to other parts of the hospital. Just think about that for a second.

Long lines everywhere, including restaurants & surf lines

If the above doesn’t convince you, then just consider the influx of tourists we are currently having. June of this year saw 791,053 visitors to the state. It’s not quite at pre-pandemic numbers – in June 2019, we had 950,000 visitors, but it’s approaching. Added to that is the fact that restaurants and stores are short staffed. People are choosing not to return to work. In addition, there are long lines everywhere because restaurants and stores here are adhering to social distancing.

Last week, the governor mandated that restaurants maintain a maximum of 50% occupancy and adhere to social distancing. This means that that restaurant reservations must be made months in advance. You remember when you could just come to Waikiki in years past and hop on down the street to the ramen place? Well, no longer. The line to that ramen place now wraps around the block and since masks aren’t mandated outdoors – people aren’t masking nor are they maintaining 6 feet of separation.

I don’t know about you, but I hate waiting in lines when I am on vacation. I’m impatient. I want to relax. And I get annoyed if I can’t find somewhere to eat. So, if this sounds like you, reconsider visiting right now because I guarantee you that you will be waiting in long lines and crowded elevators.

Also, if you enjoy learning to surf, there is no better place than some of the beaches in Hawaii. But the surf line is equally as congested in Waikiki. My husband takes our kids out there and it can be shoulder to shoulder in the water, making it difficult for beginners who are trying to avoid running over other surfers or inadvertently dropping in on their waves. If you want to full Hawaii vacation experience coupled with the surf lessons, that might be hard right now.

Increased restrictions

Due to the COVID-19 surges in recent weeks, Governor Ige has rolled back some of the reopening measures. Hare are the current guidelines (as of Aug 18, 2021)

  • Indoor gatherings restricted to 10 people
  • Outdoor gatherings restricted to 25 people (down from 75)
  • Restaurants and bars must maintain 6 foot social distancing between groups (with max size of 10 indoors and 25 outdoors)
  • Masks must be worn indoors, even in restaurants unless actively eating or drinking

No rental cars

Yup, no rental cars. Like hardly any. There are ‘sold out’ signs at the majority of the car rental agencies. The prices are so exorbitant that I have family members who have listed their own personal cars on sites like Turo. As visitors have returned very quickly to Hawaii, agencies have been unable to supplement their smaller than normal inventory. Daily car rentals can be upwards of $500 if not booked in advance.

Here are some prices I found from Beat of Hawaii for Mid-August to Mid-September

  • Honolulu starts at $985/week + taxes fees = $1300/week
  • Maui starts at $918/week
  • Big Island $1213/week
  • Kauai starts at $1068/week (although largely unavailable)

The car rental situation is so bad that many are renting U-hauls to drive around.

A muted spirit of aloha

People in Hawaii are lovely. We are usually gracious and kind and love sharing our islands with visitors. But you may find when you come that this spirit is muted. Locals are tired. They’re tired of the congestion, of tourists who berate store owners for needing to wear a mask indoors and of the traffic. We see daily reports now of visitors falsifying vaccination cards in order to vacation here. We truly want you to come and visit and enjoy our islands but consider doing so when it’s safer for all. Thank you!

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Dr. Rupa Wong

SURGEON, MOTHER, ENTREPRENEUR

Hi! I'm Dr. Rupa Wong. Physician. Private Practice Owner. Mama to 3 kids. Managing Partner. Educator. Textbook Author. Conference Co-Founder. Mentor. I am more than just one thing, even as a doctor and I bet you are too. I would love to help you envision the life you want, and then get after it. What are you waiting for?

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