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Hawaii Updates: With Surge, Debate On Contact Tracing Renewed; 29 New Cases; Bars Face Crackdown

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AP Photo/Steven Senne
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Updated 7/15 at 12:30 p.m.

Does Hawaii have enough contact tracers to chase down COVID-19 cases? State Health Director Bruce Anderson says it depends. On Monday, he said the health department can handle the current case load of infections – including the recent spike in daily cases. However, if Hawaii sees 40 or 50 cases every day, he says that would stress his staff.

Whether the state has enough contact trackers has been a point of contention between the health department and Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Ken Hara, head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, and dozens of health care professionals who called on Gov. David Ige in spring to expand contact tracing. 

Caldwell said at a press conference yesterday that when he offered to use city CARES Act funds to hire more contact tracers, the health department shot him down.

“So we actually reached out to Department of Health. Ikaika Anderson, the chair of the [City] Council said, ‘Why don't you use some of your CARES money to hire,’ and I like that. And we went to them and said, ‘We want to do that.’ And they said, no need, not necessary. We got it covered.’"

"Now, if I was on the other side, I'd say, ‘Give us all the help we can get’ because having more in a pandemic is better than having less, but that's my personal position, from where I stand on the other side of Punchbowl Street.”

The health department has as many as 179 in-house employees statewide who are "ready to go when they are needed," said Janice Okubo, department spokeswoman, by email. The number of department contact tracers changes day to day, depending on the number of cases and islands affected. 

This week, there are 51 contact tracers -- 29 on Oahu, 9 on Kauai, 8 on Hawaii Island and 5 on Maui. The department is also planning to hire 20 more trained contact tracers. They will be sufficient to cover the recent surge in cases, Okubo said.

In mid-June, NPR estimated that Hawaii was just shy of the 30 contact tracers it needed for its population size. But that was prior to the July spike in infections, including Saturday's single-day record of 42 cases.

The state has argued that an app it uses called HealthSpace increases the department's capacity to contact trace by four-fold, reducing the need for many more contact tracers.

Still, it has worked with the University of Hawaii to train contact tracers, and it is out of that program that the 20 new hires will come. They will be using the HealthSpace app to follow-up on cases in the latest surge.

By this month, the department said the program will have trained 200 contact tracers, although it is not clear when more than the 20 might be hired.

As for the mayor's criticism, Okubo said: "We appreciate the collaboration and support from all counties and will continue to work with them to control and prevent illness in Hawaii."

--HPR's Sandee Oshiro

City: Bars hours cut, face 24-hour shutdown for safety violations

Honolulu bars will see tougher enforcement of safety measures as a result of complaints to the city and a rise in COVID-19 cases. Mayor Kirk Caldwell received approval from Gov. David Ige yesterday for emergency rule changes restricting business hours and giving authorities more enforcement powers.

"One is we’ve asked that all bars and cabarets stop serving liquor midnight, every day of the week. Right now, bars can serve 'til 2 in the morning, and cabarets to 4," Caldwell said. "The other thing we did in this order is we’re asking for the authority in the amended order that liquor inspectors, or the Honolulu Police Department, can shut down a bar for 24 hours."

"If, after warning and citing, they continue to violate the mandates that we put in place when we allowed bars to open up."

The changes take effect immediately.

Caldwell says the city will be monitoring the Oahu businesses, and if things don’t improve, he may end alcohol sales at 10 p.m.

The state health department is also stepping up enforcement. It’s issuing red placards to bars and restaurants that repeatedly violate COVID safety measures.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

Measure to regulate drones in city parks deferred

A bill regulating the use of aerial drones in Honolulu parks is on hold at the City Council after officials and residents raised concerns about its provisions.

Bill 39 would update the city’s park rules to include the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles. It would create regulations for drone use and establish a permitting system for them.

The council’s parks committee discussed the measure yesterday after some posed questions about enforcement and the bill’s impact on the film industry.

"We need to have the ability to track, whether it’s a hobby or whether it’s commercial, whether they’re registered with the FAA and their 107 [license] and everything is applicable, so that we can have some order of what is going on in our parks," said Jeanne Ishikawa, deputy director for parks and recreation. "Because, first and foremost, our parks is for our park users. It is recreational use. And once we allow quote commercial activities to have, take precedence, we need to have some form or fashion of regulating that."

Ishikawa told the committee that her department will continue to handle requests from the film office for drone use. But she warned if regulations are too strict, they may exclude residents flying drones recreationally.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

Where we stand

The Hawai’i Health Department reported 29 new cases of COVID-19 today. Twenty seven cases are reported on Oahu, and two are on Hawaii Island. The number of deaths remains at 22.

The state case total now stands at 1,292. Oahu has 986 cases, Maui County has 135, Hawai’i County has 107, and Kauai County has 43. There are 21 residents who were diagnosed out of state. Some 951 people have been released from isolation.

More arrivals as travel quarantine extended

The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported 2,533 arrivals in the islands on Monday, with a sharp spike in the number of returning residents at 991. Visitors numbered 467. Both visitors and returning residents are subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival in the islands.

Others arriving included 316 crew members, 260 military, 234 people exempt from quarantine, 150 who say they are relocating to Hawaii, and 115 transiting travelers.

On Monday, Gov. David Ige announced Hawaii will extend the state's travel quarantine another month, delaying plans to ease the restrictions on visitors and dashing the hopes of some in the devastated tourism industry who had hoped for a partial reopening on Aug. 1.

The pre-travel testing program would have allowed trans-Pacific visitors and returning residents to skip the mandatory 14-day quarantine if they tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of taking their flights to the islands. 

But Ige said that the recent surge in Mainland cases and the reduced availability of tests because of the high demand both factored into the decision to push back the Aug. 1 start date to Sept. 1.

This is a developing story. Please check back for upates. Editor's note: We’d like to hear how you’re coping with the latest COVID-19 developments and the state's phased reopening. You can call our talkback line at 808-792-8217. Or e-mail us at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.

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