MauiNow’s Wendy Osher interviews Governor David Ige on Hawai’i ‘s Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic Response

July 22, 2020, 10:40 PM HST · Updated July 23, 7:42 AM
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Maui Now News Director Wendy Osher provides a special update focused on the state’s ongoing COVID-19 response effort.  She is joined by  Governor David Ige who just last week issued a 10th Supplementary Emergency Proclamation related to the pandemic.  

Topics covered include: thresholds for interisland travel safety, realistic time frames for the return of tourism, timing to the state’s return to school and education plans, returning to normalcy, unemployment, job loss, COVID-19 vs flu, and balancing a return of tourism with efforts to diversity the economy.

Interisland Travel Safety Thresholds:

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Q:With four new COVID-19 cases reported on Maui on Tuesday, and ongoing double-digit increases on Oʻahu (and a 25th death reported today), is there a threshold identified for when interisland travel is no longer considered safe?

A: “We don’t have any explicit or objective numbers.  We are looking at the entire situation.  Besides the COVID cases, the specific activities and the fatalities. We are also looking at hospital capacity, the ability to test and get results back within 24 to 48 hours and then contact tracing and our ability to identify those who may be exposed by those infected with COVID; and then our ability to respond.

“Looking at all of those factors, we do continue to believe that it’s safe to allow interisland travel here in the state, and that we still see that the prevalence rate of the virus in each of the counties are very similar in terms of a per capita basis.”

What’s a Realistic Timeline for a Return to Tourism? 

Q; Many in Hawaiʻi consider the launch of the state’s pre-travel testing program as the best indicator for when tourism will return to Hawaiʻi. Given the reopening of schools and the ongoing surge of cases on the mainland, Is Sept. 1 a realistic time frame?

A: “We do believe and are looking at all of those factors as we make decisions regarding reopening travel–trans-Pacific specifically.  As you know, when we had announced the Aug. 1 date back in June… things were looking here in the state of Hawaii.  The number of cases were low, or at least stable and the virus was not out of control on the mainland.

“Subsequent to that, we’ve seen the explosion of cases.  California continues to set new daily records of COVID positive cases.  Arizona, Texas and Florida continue to have similar kinds of experiences–and as we discussed, public school schedules reopening on Aug. 4, we believe that it was in the best interest of everyone to delay the start of pre-testing trans-Pacific travel to Sept. 1.

“We have made progress.  We continue to implement the program as if Aug. 1 still was the deadline.  There’s much work that the state and the counties need to do to create a system that we feel confident can protect the public health and wellbeing.  We will assess what the conditions are as we approach Sept. 1 to make another decision about whether we are ready; and more importantly, whether the virus is contained in those markets that are most important to us here in Hawaiʻi.”

HSTA Complaints, Are Schools Ready? 

Q: The Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association says school buildings are not ready to open and is urging the state to delay in-building instruction. Their concerns include lack of clear protocols relating to face mask use, what to do when someone tests positive, and limited confidence in ʻohana bubbles.  Are schools ready… and do you feel this opening is in any way rushed given the outstanding concerns raised by the HSTA?

A: “I don’t believe that the reopening is in anyway rushed.  If you look at the conditions here in the state of Hawaiʻi–and one of the keys to our success has been the fact that our decisions have been based on the data and the conditions that we see here in the state of Hawaiʻi as well as around the country.

“We continue to have the lowest per capita rate of infection here in the islands.  And you know a couple of the health statistics–one of the things that they are tracking–especially on the mainland in the states where the virus is out of control–in California, Arizona and Texas–is the rate of positivity.  So the percentage of those tested who test positive.

“And the CDC guidance is that ideally you want to be below five percent.  They say that anything over 10% you have a problem–the virus is active and spreading in your community–and you have to do a better job of getting it under control.

“Our percent of positivity here in the state of Hawaii has been below 2% for the entire time, and in most of the instances, it’s been less than 1.5%.  So we don’t have the virus activity that we see in these other communities.

“Some of the other questions that were raised by HSTA–the notion that we don’t have protocols for when a student or a teacher or staff member tests positive.  We do have protocols about what happens when someone is infected in the workplace and clearly, those guidelines would apply in school situation.

“I have directed the Department of Health to work with the Department of Education to write up protocols specifically applicable to the school situation.

“I do believe that the Department of Education and the Board of Education has a very good plan.  It’s comprehensive I do believe that the indicators that we track tell us that it is safe and healthy for our community to reopen schools for both face to face as well as the blende learning environment.  As you know most of the schools are moving to that blended environment where students would be in tele-school learning from home during part of the time and in the classroom doing face-to-face work part of the time.  That way, we would be able to enforce the physical distancing of six feet between students and teachers and staff; as well as implementing masking procedures.

Editor’s Note: The following additional questions were raised. View video above for response.

Return to Normalcy; Envisioning the Future of Hawaiʻi

Q: UHERO’s most recent (baseline) forecast envisions total employment not returning to its pre-pandemic level until 2029.  What do you envision in the years ahead and what does the next decade for Hawaiʻi look like?

Unemployment Rate Discrepancies:  

Q: What do you think of the latest unemployment numbers for June? While there is a significant improvement month-over-month, the state says there were COVID-releated discrepancies in the count.  Does this impact the state’s share of funding or attention to help for those impacted by job loss?

Looming Cut-off of Federal Plus Up Aid: 

Q: With the $600 federal “plus up” payments set to expire at the end of this month ((on July 31st)), is the state planning any further assistance to help sustain the *80,000-117,000 unemployed residents?

COVID-19 vs Flu, Fair comparison?

Q: A Stanford University scientist wrote an opinion piece calling the lockdown response “a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.”  What would you say to those comparing COVID-19 to the death rates of the flu.  Is this a valid comparison?

Maui in Transition–Tourism and a Diversified Economy:

Q: I understand that you spent some time on Maui as a child in Lahaina. You’ve seen the transformation of Lahaina from a sugar town to one dependent on tourism.  What happens with these large hotels that are now sitting empty… is there any effort being made to diversify our economy?

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