The Hawaii Department of Health has restored visiting facilities in Kalaupapa to former Hansen’s disease patients and resident staff who were barred from visiting family and friends for more than two years during the epidemic.
The state has imposed much stricter restrictions on the secluded peninsula of Molokai than the rest of the state, forcing some patients to beg for hugs even as the rest of the world grows to accept COVID-19 as a manageable disease. Daily life. Some patients who suffer from age-related memory loss are sometimes confused about living in lockdown from the coronavirus and have previous experiences of being withdrawn from the world as lepers.
But the state recently relaxed its blanket no-visitor policy enacted in March 2020. As of November, Kalaupapa residents can seek approval for sponsored visits from up to six vaccinated guests at a time, the health department said. The total number of visitors to the settlement is limited to 25.
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According to Kalaupapa National Historical Park ranger Mikiala Pescia, patients and staff are excited to bring some normalcy back into their lives.
“This is the best medicine for us,” said former Hansen’s disease patient Meli Watanuki, 88, who recently enjoyed a visit from friends from Honolulu for the first time in three years.
Masking, social distancing restrictions remain in place
The coronavirus pandemic marks the second time Kalaupapa’s former patients have been forced into isolation due to widespread disease. But where they were once brutally isolated from the rest of society to protect others, they have been isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect themselves.
Other epidemic rules have also been eased on the 10,700-acre peninsula, which is incorporated as Callao County and administered by the Department of Health.
Masks can now come out as long as people keep a 6-foot distance between them. But masks remain mandatory indoors and indoor gatherings are limited to five people.
With approval from the health department, certain outdoor activities and gatherings of more than five people have also resumed on a case-by-case basis. This month there will be a Christmas party and door-to-door caroling.
Hawaii DOH spokeswoman Caitlin Arita-Chang said the department’s priority is to protect high-risk members of the Kalaupapa community from COVID-19. None of the former patients living in the settlement contracted the disease.
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‘I’m so happy this is my home’
Four patients in their 80s and 90s remained at Kalaupapa among many former Hansen’s disease patients who were deported until their deaths even after the repeal of the 1969 Hawaii law. An estimated 8,000 people with the disease were deported there from 1866 to 1969.
The last surviving patients live in settlements with the help of the Health Department, which provides them with furnished rooms, nursing staff and a stipend for food and clothing.
Watanuki was 18 years old when he was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in 1952 in his native American Samoa. Thinking he had overcome the illness, he moved to Honolulu in 1960. But symptoms of illness returned in 1964. After treatment, he elected to relocate to Kalaupapa in 1969.
“I am very happy that this is my home,” he told Civil Beat in an interview this week.
Today Watanuki started his morning at church before going to work at the Kalawao store. In the afternoons he clears and pulls weeds part-time for the National Park Service at St. Philomena Church in the main Kalawao settlement area.
He was fueled by faith in God and reverence for Saints Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, who devoted their lives to caring for Hansen’s disease patients at Kalaupapa, despite the risk to their own health.
Watanuki said the pandemic restrictions were difficult, but he understood that the strict controls imposed by the state were intended to protect him.
When will the tour return?
While private tours have resumed, public tours remain closed. As co-owners of Saints Damien and Marian Cope Molokai Tours, Watanuki said he is eager for tourism to return. Health department administrators have told him the tour is expected to resume in 2023, he said.
Watanuki noted that there are many federal employees who have traveled from the mainland to work in Kalaupapa in recent months.
“Why is it different?” Tourists come in small numbers and leave after a few hours, he asked, while federal workers typically stay on the peninsula for weeks or months.
Sister Alicia Damien Lau, a Catholic nun who lives in Kalaupapa, said public tours are off due to concerns that visitors from other places could spread the virus.
“We don’t want people coming to Kalaupapa that nobody knows,” he said. “So it’s tough. But it’s good. It’s to protect our kupuna.”
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Next week, for the first time in three years, the Kalaupapa Lions Club will resume its annual Christmas party with some semblance of normality. There will be food, giveaways and a chance to win a ukulele.
The party will be held outdoors – far less stringent than a pandemic warning imposed at last year’s event when party-goers could simply drive up in a car to collect gifts and take them home and enjoy in solitude.
The Department of Health has approved Christmas caroling for patients and staff.
This story was published in partnership with Honolulu Civil Beat, a nonprofit newsroom that does investigative and watchdog journalism related to the state of Hawaii.