How Kalawao County on Molokai managed to stay COVID-19 free

Coronavirus

KALAWAO COUNTY, Hawaii (KHON) — The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has steadily risen across the Hawaiian Islands since the start of the pandemic, but one county has the distinction of zero cases — Kalawao County, on the island of Molokai. 

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Kalawao County, located on the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the north shore of Molokai, is separate from the rest of the island, which is part of Maui County. 

The Kingdom of Hawaii passed a law in 1865 forcing those with Hansen’s disease (known as leprosy at the time) to isolate in the settlement of Kalaupapa. 

COURTESY: HAWAII STATE ARCHIVES

“There were over 8,000 people that were sent there. Many were forced to live there. A lot of them were taken away from their families,” explained Baron Chan, the Branch Chief for Hansen’s Disease at the Hawaii Department of Health. 

Fast forward to more than a century later — it is the only county in Hawaii with zero COVID-19 cases. 

Kalawao County is now under the jurisdiction of the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH). 

“We do control the county. Our mission for Department of Health is provide for health and care of the patients, that’s why we’re there,” said Chan. 

Of the 8,000 patients that have lived in the settlement, only 12 patients remain, said Chan. The oldest patient is 96.

“Our patients are on average, 86-years-old. They all have other health issues, so they’re at extreme high risk for covid mortality,” said Chan. 

Fearing a spread of the virus, the DOH closed the county to visitors on March 10.

Anyone who leaves is required to quarantine for 14 days when they return.

Pre-COVID, Chan says up to 100 people lived in Kalawao County: mostly church workers, those in healthcare, or National Parks Service employees.

Since the lockdown, Chan says the population dwindled to about 40 to 60 residents. 

“Everyone is pretty dedicated to Kalaupapa, and the patients specifically. They care for our patients, they’re dear to our hearts. When you talk about social distancing, wearing a mask…they all do it for the patients.”

“Everything is geared towards making sure that they’re safe,” said Sister Alicia Damien Lau, a resident of Kalawao County. 

The shutdown and extra effort, she says, is why Kalawao County is COVID-free.

“I don’t want to go Honolulu! You know, I don’t want to go to the other islands at this point.”

By comparison, as of Oct. 27, 17 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed on Molokai. Oahu has over 12,900 confirmed cases.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hawaii as of 10/27/20

“You just get so paranoid. Well I do, anyway. Here, I know the staff does their very best in keeping things not only clean, but safe. Unless we have somebody sneaking in with that we don’t know, but I feel very safe here.” 

*Note: Though the Hawaii Department of Health says there are currently 12 patients residing in Kalaupapa, Sister Alicia Damien Lau says 5 currently live in the settlement. The remaining patients are at a facility on Oahu.

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