State pushed back on plan to house U.S. citizens who left China in Waikiki

Published: Feb. 3, 2020 at 5:41 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state’s health director told lawmakers Monday that he blocked a federal plan to put hundreds of U.S. citizens who are leaving China in Waikiki hotels.

That was revealed in a briefing on the coronavirus at the state Capitol on Monday.

The Health Department says the state has secured a quarantine facility at Pearl Harbor, but officials believe only a handful of people may require that type of mandatory treatment.

They say Hawaii currently has no suspected cases of the deadly virus.

But they say they’ll remain vigilant because the outbreak may last for months.

“If you think the problem is going to be over because they’ve closed those borders, that not the case,” said state Health Director Bruce Anderson.

“It’s going to continue to be an issue for as long as this session occurs and probably quite longer.”

Anderson said the state had no say in whether or not it wanted to be one of 11 airports with enhanced passenger screening for the coronavirus.

The federal government also initially wanted Honolulu to take in hundreds of U.S. citizens who live abroad China — but Anderson says he pushed back.

“I said it was inappropriate to put these people up in hotels,” Anderson said.

“We don’t have another facility for them that can handle that many people coming. They were talking at the time about 200-plus people coming on each flight coming to Hawaii and that was off the table.”

There are currently no flights scheduled to Hawaii from China, but U.S. Homeland Security officials say passengers who need to be screened may be re-booked and sent to Oahu.

“They are supposed to be re-booked to a direct flight to those 11 airports,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy security at the Department of Homeland Security.

“We had to wrestle through that this weekend but that’s how that is supposed to work.”

State Transportation Department officials say they’re ready if that happens. They say they already had procedures in place after dealing with past outbreaks, like H1N1 and SARS.

“I’m pretty comfortable with the process that’s been in place for many years,” said Dr. James Ireland, Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Station medical director at Honolulu airport.

“It’s been adjusted for coronavirus. We’ve also trained in Honolulu all of our airport firefighters in specifically how to deal with this coronavirus and swab for it.”

Hilton Raethel, the head of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said the state’s hospitals are prepared and staff are screening patients for the coronavirus as well.

“We do have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment for all the staff and patients and visitors in hospitals,” he said.

“We also have what we call negative pressure isolation rooms on all islands across the state so that if a patient does need to be admitted they can be quarantined appropriately.”

With suspected cases in 36 U.S. states, health officials say there’s a chance the virus will eventually show up in Hawaii.

But they say simple steps like washing your hands or coughing and sneezing into your elbow will help protect you.

And they discourage the sharing of rumors on social media.

“That’s harmful to our communities because it’s not getting the important messages out we as a community need to prepare for the eventual likelihood that this virus will be in our communities,” said Dr. Sarah Park, state epidemiologist.

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