Hawaii Updates: Cases Up 2; Health Dept. Under More Fire; Prosecutor Raises Alarms Over Inmates

May 11, 2020

Updated: 5/11/2020, 1:10 p.m.

Where Hawaii stands

Hawaii recorded two new coronavirus cases today. The state health department reported that the count is now at 634 and the deaths stand at 17. Oahu cases are at 410, Maui County at 117, Hawaii Island at 75 and Kauai County at 21. There are 11 cases diagnosed out of state.

Visitors arrivals up almost 250 yesterday

The state's mandatory 14-day quarantine continues to prove no deterrent to increasing numbers of tourists. The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that yesterday 854 people arrived in the islands, including 246 visitors and 334 residents.

Also counted in the arrivals are 132 crew members, 80 intended residents and 62 transiting travelers. 

Health Department criticized again over testing, contact tracing

The state Department of Health has come under heavy fire lately for opposing broader testing for COVID-19 and insisting it has enough staff to track the close contacts of those infected. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell issued the latest criticism last week. 

Caldwell says the city has tried three times to propose plans to health officials to conduct more coronavirus tests and ramp up contact tracing – only to be rejected.

"If we have visitors, as they used to come back here, we’re talking about 500 contact tracers. And we know that the Department of Health is not even close to having that system in place," the mayor said. "And all of this should in place prior to opening up. It’s kind of like building an airplane while you’re flying – highly risky and not recommended."

He cited a letter signed by dozens of health care professionals expressing a lack of confidence in the health department. They called for widespread testing, rapid contact tracing, and "more agile, better-resourced public health leadership at the State level," among other recommendations.

Yesterday's Hawaii Updates: Cases Up 1; Capitol Closed, Written Comments Allowed; Palolo Home Marks Mother's Day

Health Director Bruce Anderson told HPR that there are reasons why the department doesn’t think broad testing is the best approach.

"Broad-based testing is not effective in informing the long term. And even in the short term would require resources that are simply not available," Anderson said. "We don’t need a snapshot of what we have now, what we need is a monitoring and surveillance program that can over time inform us on what activities are occurring, as it relates to COVID-19."

On contact tracing, Anderson says he thinks his staff and 30 volunteers are sufficient for now to handle the declining numbers of COVID-19 cases.

"We are looking to expand our staff. We’ve had sufficient staff to be able to handle issues up to now. I think we’ve done a very good job at dealing with this first wave, but we are going to be looking to augment the staff with initial staff in our department. And also extenders of those who would be able to help dealing with surges."

Anderson also points to a new app that would automate some of the work of contract tracing.

But the mayor thinks the state needs to have things in place quickly before it fully reopens.

It’s a complaint similar to one raised by another senior official in the state administration -- Major General Ken Hara, who heads the state’s response to the COVID-19 emergency.

He publicly criticized the health department last week for he said was the department's dragging its feet on building its contact tracing staff.

He asked Gov. David Ige to intervene, but the governor has stood by Anderson.

Last week, Ige said there are enough resources to handle the current outbreak, although as HPR reported last week, the state's current contact tracking staffing is less than one-tenth of the number recommended by the National Association of County and City Health Officials.  

It’s not clear if the growing drumbeat against the department's stance on testing and contact tracing will change the governor’s mind.

But it may be hard to ignore the criticism when it comes from as many corners of the community as it has.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

Prosecutors raise alarm over release of detainees

The Hawaiʻi’ Supreme Court last month ordered the early release of prisoners be expedited because of the coronavirus threat and concerns of overcrowding in prisons and jails. More than 800 detainees have been released from Hawaiʻiʻs correctional facilities since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the islands. 

The goal is to free up enough room in Hawaiʻiʻs jails and prisons to implement social distancing measures and isolate any confirmed cases.

Prosecutors are now concerned that fear of COVID-19 is creating a climate in the courts that is hesitant to keep people incarcerated.

Honolulu Acting Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto, who is running to take over the job permanently, is concerned that in some cases the inmateʻs violent criminal histories were not considered by the courts. 

"It's not easy to determine who is a danger and who is not a danger, because you can be charged with a seemingly not a dangerous crime," he said.

Nadamoto cited the case of Daniel Baang, who allegedly stabbed a man to death last week after being released from jail. Baang was being held on harassment charges. Nadamoto argues the individuals are being released without the proper support for reentry into the community.

"They probably have no place to stay, no food to eat. What do you expect to happen? Theyʻre going to reoffend," said Nadamoto.

County prosecutors and the state attorney generalʻs office are calling for a re-evaluation of the release efforts.

Jacquie Esser, state deputy public defender who is also running for Honolulu prosecutor, said any discussion about halting the releases is premature. 

"As long as we have social distancing in our communities, we have to maintain social distancing in our correctional facilities," Esser said.

All but one of the state’s correctional facilities remains overcrowded compared to the number of inmates they were designed to hold. To reach those levels would require the release of another 225 detainees.

Nadamoto argues that could jeopardize public safety.

"My job as a prosecutor is to protect the public. These people are being released without no verifiable place of residence. I mean, that clearly puts the public at risk."

An official update on inmate releases by Special Master Daniel Foley is due on Friday.

--HPR's Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Editor's note: We’d like to hear how you’re coping with the latest developments in dealing with the spread of the coronavirus. You can call our talkback line at 808-792-8217. Or e-mail us at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.