The Latest: Schatz: Don't Fixate On Airports When Main Spread In Communities; 1 Death, 91 Cases

Oct 15, 2020

Updated: 10/15/2020, 3:29 p.m. Hawaii is focusing too much on COVID-19 infections that might come through its airports when the vast majority of COVID-19 cases result from community clusters, said Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz.

The senator made his comments yesterday as the state reopens to trans-Pacific travelers who can bypass the 14-day mandatory quarantine when they test negative for the coronavirus.

"I continue to think we are fixated on the airport, as if it is the primary vector for the spread of the disease, and it just isn't," he said. "Even when we were arguing over the quarantine, even before the 14- day quarantine came into place, the disease is spreading among us because of us, not because of tourists."

The main risk is in clusters like those at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, housing projects, and nursing homes and within vulnerable communities, he said. "We really need to attack those problems and not be fixed exclusively on border control."

Even those who work in the hospitality industry won't have prolonged, close contact with tourists, Schatz said, insisting he isn't "schlepping" for the tourism industry when he makes this point.

He said the daily news of who was a scofflaw -- "some guy from Oregon who, you know, runs away from quaratine and isn't he a jerk" -- distracted people from the work of stopping the virus in the community.

That involves universal mask wearing, social distancing, keeping doors and windows open whenever possible and avoiding long-term prolonged and close contact with people.

Speaking during a question-and-answer session sponsored by the Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, Schatz also said prospects are slim that Congress will pass another COVID-19 relief bill before Nov. 3.

Schatz said the Republican-controlled Senate works on one thing at a time and is focused on confirming President Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. So pandemic aid is doubtful anytime soon.

"The very high likelihood is that it's going to have to wait until after the election. And that is deeply unfortunate," he said. 

"I think state and county governments are going to have to make some incredibly difficult decisions. I've been in contact with legislative leaders locally. They do think they have several months more runway before the most draconian of measures would have to be undertaken. But, you know, they do not have endless cash reserves."

Health department approves Japan pre-testing to avoid quarantine

Travelers from Japan can bypass the 14-day quarantine if they can show proof of a negative result from tests conducted by approved testing partners in that country, similar to the program launched today for trans-Pacific travelers, Gov. David Ige's office said in a statement yesterday.

But it remains unclear when Japanese tourists, a key part of the Hawaii visitor industry prior to the pandemic, could travel abroad.

Japan still restricts U.S. travel into Japan and Japan nationals must quarantine for 14 days when they return to their country.

State auditor says self-quarantine travel program lacks planning, oversight

The state Office of the Auditor says state and county agencies involved in the self-quarantine travel program are operating in silos with no one overseeing the entire operation.

In a limited scope review of the program requested by the state Senate's COVID-19 committee, Auditor Les Kondo's office pointed to the lack of a defined organizational structure, with agencies developing their own processes to support their responsibilities under the program.

The auditors say this "has created inefficiencies and other concerns that likely have -- and if unaddressed, will continue to -- hurt the effectiveness of the program." 

Because the self-quarantine program relies primarily on voluntary compliance, it cannot ensure that visitors and returning residents quarantine for the required 14 days. The arrests that have been made show people are violating the quarantine rather than the effectiveness of the enforcement, the review states.

The lack of long-term planning is concerning, the auditors said. One example is the coming transfer of the screening of arriving trans-Pacific passngers from the state Department of Transportation to the Department of Health on Jan. 1. 

But there was no information on how the health department planned to perform the screening, according to the reivew. It's also unclear how the self-quarantine program will be funded when the state's CARES Act funding expires on Dec. 30.

The auditor made several recommendations, including that the governor appoint one person to oversee all policies and programs relating to the trans-Pacific and interisland travel, including the self-quarantine and pre-test programs.

City Council seeks more oversight over troubled rail project

The Honolulu City Council is weighing a measure that aims to shed light on the rail project as it enters a critical stage of construction.

The council’s budget committee held a special meeting yesterday to discuss the bill, which would require the council to approve the city’s funding share of the project each year.

Budget Chair Joey Manahan says the purpose is to give the council some oversight over the $9.2 billion rail project and how taxpayer dollars are spent.

Last month, the Caldwell administration, citing high costs, delays and a lack of transparency, withdrew from the public-private partnership known as P3 that would develop the system’s last four miles.

Despite the city’s withdrawal, HART CEO Andy Robbins says he is moving forward with the development.

Council member Brandon Elefante observed that it’s hard to resolve the conflict because the council doesn’t currently have any say over the partnership.

"We’re seeing, quite frankly, like a divorce happening right in front of us," Elefante said. He said he didn't know if the differences can be resolved.

"I mean, I don’t know if we can get to that – whether we continue to go down Road A or do we go down Road B and, you know, cut bait and have that divorce. And then come back together and look for a way forward."

The committee deferred action on the measure. Members will await a HART board discussion scheduled today on the agency's next steps.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

Qualified residents to receive $500 restaurant cards

Residents who filed an initial unemployment claim with the state beginning March 1 will be receiving prepaid debit cards for $500 that they can use at restaurants and other food establishments.

They will receive the cards automatically and have until Dec. 15 to spend the funds. The cards won't impact SNAP or Medicaid benefits or eligibility.

"This program will provide economic relief to thousands of local businesses and individuals statewide who are being negatively affected by the pandemic," said Mike McCartney, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, in a news release.

More information is available on the program website.

Where we stand

The state Department of Health today reported 1 death and 91 new COVID-19 cases. The latest case count returns the daily infections to double digits. The number brings the statewide total of coronavirus cases to 13,764. The death toll rose to 184.

There have now been 12,249 cases on Oahu (74 new cases), 1,005 on Hawaii Island (13 new cases), 411 for Maui County (2 new case), and 59 on Kauai County (no new cases). Those diagnosed out of state rose by two to 40. 

Oahu still leads in number of infections, but Hawaii Island continues to see more COVID-19 cases, exceeding 1,000 in its total count today.

Life Care Center of Hilo, which reported another resident death yesterday, bringing the total to four, said today it has one resident being treated at Hilo Medical Center. Nine have been treated at the hospital and returned.

The nursing home had 52 residents test positive as of Wednesday, 44 of them active. Sixteen staff have tested positive, 9 active.

The University of the Nations Kona was scheduled to undergo another round of student and staff testing today at Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim's request. About 50 student and staff have tested positive at the unaccredited religious-based program, 18 of them active as of Tuesday, the school said on its website.