Members of the Hawaii National Guard have been a vital part of the state’s COVID-19 response. Since
President Donald Trump extended the federal funds to keep them in place through March, the Guard's presence will continue to evolve.
On average, about 800 national Guard members work each day throughout the state, assisting with tasks from contact tracing to the safe travels program to COVID-19 testing.
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case explained that Hawaii, along with 47 other states across the country were hoping the president would extend the funding that was set to expire at the end of the month.
“The Hawaii situation is not unique,” he said.
“But it's especially acute here in Hawaii because of all of the roles that we're asking the Guard to play.”
Late last week, the President extended the funding to allow the National Guard to continue with COVID-19 assistance.
It costs about $8.5 million a month to fund those activities in Hawaii and the federal government picks up 75% of the bill. The state pays for the rest-- about $2 million per month.
However Brigadier General Moses Kaoiwi, the Hawaii National Guard Task Force Commander noted that some of the Guard tasks would be better secured with long-term contracts.
One already in the works is the state’s safe travels program.
“They are all screening some of the tests that's coming through the website and double checking to make sure that the tests that've been input are valid, trusted partner tests,” he said.
“That's a big thing at this point that we could probably, if need be, have an outside agency door contract that out.”
He explained because the airport screenings are so critical for the state, a transition to a more permanent solution would be ideal.
In the meantime, Case suspected the Guard may take on another important role soon.
“We have the vaccine, which may well be approved in the next two weeks or so. And as soon as it is approved, if it is approved, then we will start massive distribution throughout the country,” he said.
“The Guard is critical to the district distribution here in Hawaii, not just the receipt of it, but the distribution across Hawaii itself.”
Kaoiwi said the Guard will be prepared to help if needed.
“We're waiting on the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to complete their plan with the Department of Health on how this is going to occur,” he said.
“I don't need to see the plan exactly right now, because I know it's going to be probably several types of missions if they need it, for example, we're good for distribution, transportation, traffic control, and maybe security. If we get the mission, we'll apply what we already know concerning how to do those things to the situation.”
State Health Director Libby Char estimated the price to distribute the vaccine will be about $25 million.
While there has been talk of additional federal funding, she told the state senate COVID-19 committee for now, it’s best to assume the state will have to pay for the distribution itself.
The biggest hurdle she anticipated is finding a place to store the vaccine that needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees. That could make delivering doses to rural areas particularly difficult.
“If the minimum order for one of them is going to be 975 doses, you don't want to waste any of that. So you're not going to send out to a very rural place, that's not going to be able to use all of that,” she said.
“Because of the cold storage requirements, it's not something where you could just pick a few vials out and send it over.”
Char said just as the Guard has been important for logistical coordination for the state’s contact tracing program, they will be part of vaccine distribution as well.
The federal Food and Drug Administration could give a vaccine emergency use authorization as early as this month.
Char said because it isn’t clear which of the vaccines the state would receive, the vaccine plan has not yet been finalized.
However, the first doses will go to Hawaii’s medical centers to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers.