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Governor Says Hawaiʻi Prisons Don't Have the Capacity to Fully Implement COVID Protocols

Office of Governor David Ige

In a wide-ranging interview with The Conversation's Catherine Cruz, Hawaiʻi Gov. David Ige talks about COVID-19 in prisons and jails, criticism from the tourism industry amid the Delta variant surge, and vaccinating our keiki.

Catherine Cruz: The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court justices are considering whether they should force the corrections department to begin releasing more inmates due to the overcrowding and the surge of Delta cases. The vaccination rates for most state workers is high. As of July, it was close to 90%, but workers at the Department of Public Safety had the lowest rate of any other department.

Hawaiʻi Gov. David Ige: We had made public safety and the correctional facilities a priority from very, very early on during this pandemic. We do know that those who live in those congregate facilities are at risk, especially because they're confined and we have too many people in those facilities. It is improving. I've spoken with Director Max Otani and he is working very hard to encourage all of the inmates, as well as staff, to get vaccinated. As you know, we did mandate vaccinations, but employees can choose to get tested on a weekly basis. We do believe that the percentage of those vaccinated will continue to increase as we proceed through this pandemic.

Cruz: The question of the release of certain inmates is now before the Supreme Court again, and there's just concern about the number of cases COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Ige: Yeah, certainly, that's been a concern of ours as well, as you know again, prisoners who are offered to get vaccinated early as a priority -- many chose not to. You know, we continue to work with the oversight commission to look at what improvements we can make. It is a challenge. We have many who are assigned to the correctional facilities, and we don't have the space or the capacity to fully implement the COVID protocols. You know, we’d like to isolate anyone new into the system for 10 days — but oftentimes, we just don't have the space to be able to do that.

Cruz: And I'm sure there are people out there who are just of the mind that you know — just mandate it, require them, and not allow for the testing option. What do you say to that?

Ige: Well, I mean, I do think that we're making progress and we have gotten a significant percentage of those vaccinated. So I do think that we continue to consider that, and working with the Attorney General to make the appropriate actions and take the appropriate actions. The cases -- we have been successful in keeping COVID out of many of our facilities for a very good, long period of time. But as the case counts in the community and community spread increased, you know, it's virtually impossible to keep COVID out of the prison.

Cruz: I'm not sure what the vacancy rate is for the adult correction officers. I know there is a concern that you don't want officers to quit if we need those workers on the job. But do you see at some point saying everybody's got to get the vaccine, period?

Ige: Yeah, we are looking at that as a requirement. And we have been working to fill vacancies in the correctional facilities. We have had many increase the number of training sessions and opportunities that we're having. And so we are committed to filling those vacancies -- we pay well, we promote the opportunity to be in the corrections profession. And, you know, we have had better success in people signing up for the training courses, and getting more correctional officers. And so we'll continue to do that.

Cruz: We've heard lots of criticism — you know, you took the step of asking visitors and actually telling them that now is not the time to come to Hawaiʻi because the Delta surge was stressing our health care system. Do you think you're being unfairly criticized about that? There was a downturn shortly after that. Although, you know, I think August, September is normally when we see a slowdown.

Ige: I definitely was aware that there would be a natural slowdown. Certainly, I was concerned and heard the concern from my community that there were too many visitors here on the islands. And Catherine, as you may recall, you know, the spike started before the Fourth of July weekend, but it really started accelerating and you know, we crossed the 100, and then the 200, and the 300 case average. And then right prior to Labor Day, when I made an announcement asking visitors to not come, we were averaging 900 new cases. We had more than 470 COVID-positive patients in our hospitals, and the ICU units all across the state were above capacity in some facilities, and clearly near capacity in virtually every facility across the state. So I did feel that even though our visitors represent just a small niche of the cases, that anything would be able to tip the numbers to the point that the health care system would crash.

Cruz: We did hear the criticism from the hoteliers that they wish that you had consulted with them before you made that statement. I happened to be riding the elevator the other day and shared it with a cab driver. And I asked how he was doing and he said, “Oh, business is terrible." He said he worked nine hours and only made $30. And he said, “I'm mad at Gov. David Ige.”

Ige: I do know that it had an impact on our economy and our community. But I really felt that we needed to make sure that we don't crash our health care system. You know, even though I authorized crisis standards of care in order to protect our health care workers and the system, we have not had to implement that. We have not had to make life and death decisions about who receives care and who doesn't. And I do believe that if we had not taken that action, we would’ve if the health care system had really crossed that threshold -- that would have severe impact for everyone, not just COVID patients, you know, everyone who needed health care during that time.

Cruz: So no regrets?

Ige: I understand it's my job to make some of those decisions. And I felt that it was necessary at that time.

Cruz: Is there anything else that you want to talk about, anything you want to emphasize?

Ige: I just want to encourage if people are not vaccinated, to get vaccinated. That's the most important thing we can do so that we can end restrictions and really get back to the new normal. As you know, Pfizer has submitted an application for emergency use authorization for vaccinations for children aged five to 11. I really do think that is an important part of what we're trying to do to fight COVID-19. We do expect that the federal government, the FDA, and the CDC will be reviewing that application in the next two to four weeks, and we do expect it to be approved. And that really will be a game-changer. You know, it'll help us to continue to keep our schools open. I do know that many parents have asked about vaccinating their children, you know, it really would make an important part of our community. And you know, we always understand that our children are our most precious assets that we want to protect, that we would now have the option of vaccinating them, and that will make a huge difference in getting back to normal.

Cruz: There have been some mixed messages throughout this pandemic, and some of them coming from your lieutenant governor. And some folks are just wondering, is he a part of your team? Because sometimes he has made statements that may seem to undermine what you've just announced?

Ige: Well, I mean, you know, we tried to make him aware of the things that we're working on. And, you know, he does have a mind of his own. And he makes the statements that he does. You know, we continue to be focused on taking the best action on behalf of the entire community. And I do appreciate, you know, we continue to be the most successful state, I believe, in dealing with this pandemic. I noticed this Delta surge has really been a setback. But the last three weeks have been important trends in the right direction. We are seeing fewer infections, and we are getting to a better place for our hospitals and health care system.

Cruz: Yes, thank heavens for that. Although September, oh my gosh, the death count for September is just so disheartening.

Ige: Yeah. And, you know, the death count is a lagging indicator. So we do know that we will see higher deaths for the next several weeks because of that surge that we saw,

Cruz: So the worst is not over yet?

Ige: The worst is not over yet.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 30, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at
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