HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly six months after the governor instituted a mandatory quarantine on all trans-Pacific travelers, he is embarking on efforts to slowly ease it with a pre-travel testing program starting Oct. 15 that’s seen as a crucial step in reopening the tourism industry.
Since the pandemic began, more than 11,200 in Hawaii have contracted the virus and 120 have died.
The virus has also crippled Hawaii’s economy, leading to tens of thousands of layoffs and billion in lost revenue. Following a surge in cases last month, a stay-at-home order was issued for Oahu.
Hawaii News Now sat down with Gov. David Ige on Friday to discuss his administration’s response to the coronavirus and what he would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight.
He also discussed what’s next for the state as he seeks to slowly reopen.
Q: There have been major announcements this week on restarting tourism and potentially reopening public school campuses. Are you concerned both of these things are happening around the same time?
I do have a new director of Department of Health, Dr. Libby Char, who is an ER doctor and has been involved in this pandemic from the county’s perspective. So she’s fully aware of all of the challenges and has hit the ground running. She really is committed to re-establishing and restoring the public trust in the department.
And i think most importantly, she really believes that ... she wants to reach out and get collaboration and participation from everyone the federal and county partners, community health centers can be part of the contact tracing and disease investigation activity and she’s committed to a stronger partnership even within state government, Department of Education ... to respond to the needs of the community much better.
Q: What do you think of Dr. Char’s leadership style versus that of former Health Director Bruce Anderson?
She is a real leader. She takes charge. if you think about an ER doc that’s part of what they live and they deal with emergencies very calmly and I think most importantly can prioritize and really get to the actions that are most needed. I’m really excited about her coming on board and the leadership she will be providing.
Q: How would you respond to parents who say you are putting the economy above students by reopening?
We are absolutely not putting the needs of visitors ahead of students. The whole framework was really responding, the community had said they want to know what triggers, how would we be looking at the various models of learning in the schools and really what’s in the best interests of the learning.
It’s about balancing the needs of the children. We know our children learn best in a face-to-face learning environment, especially younger children, kindergarten to grade 3. Clearly being in a classroom with other students and teachers is the best learning environment for them but because of COVID-19 we know that’s not the safest place for them so the guidelines really provide a framework.
Q: What specifically needs to be finalized before the Oct. 15 launch date of the pre-travel testing program?
Part of the pre-travel testing program we believe is improving the health and safety of our community. If people can get tested prior to coming here, for one if they’re positive they won’t come, they’ll know they’re infected. If they test negative then at least we know at the time they were tested they weren’t infected with the virus and we believe that will reduce the number that are traveling who may be infected with the virus.
We are working with the hospitality industry to reopen hotels. We know that we want to establish standards and protocols for cleaning and sanitation. We want to make sure that all of the things that can protect the employees to ensure they don’t get infected are in place and then really working with the Hawaii Tourism Authority to think about marketing and strategies about where we would want to be promoting travel.
Q: How will you make sure that employees in resort bubbles do not bring the virus home to their families?
We want to make sure that we have standards in place for hygiene for protection of the employees so that people feel comfortable that travelers can come to islands and employees have all the personal protective equipment and that they’ve implemented the cleaning and sanitizing protocols that are so important.
One other part of that whole resort bubble is the notion that there would be a geofence to keep them on the property and that would allow us to bring travelers back in a managed way and try to separate the interactions between travelers and residents so we can minimize any possibility of people getting infected.
Q: What is the latest on the inter-island quarantine? Is it going to be lifted?
I continue to work with the mayors on the inter-island quarantine. We are seeing the number of cases dropping here on Oahu. I wish it would drop faster but we definitely see the trend downward. As you’re aware the Senate COVID Committee had proposed a pilot pre-travel testing program for inter-island and we working through the details of how that would be.
We are concerned because of the limited tests that we have available here in the state of Hawaii. We don’t want to take away from those who need to get tested because they have symptoms or because they have come into close contact so we’re kind of working through those details and see how the pre-travel testing for inter-island would be able to be implemented in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the safety of our community.
Q: Some have questioned whether the lack of a solution on the inter-island quarantine presents a worrisome loophole. Are you worried about that?
We are working to expand testing capacity here in the state. We do have an RFP out for our private labs to double the capacity of tests that they can do. We are also are looking at new tests.
There have been a number of new tests that are almost as accurate as the PCR tests but significantly cheaper, you know, $5 to $20 and very quick so if we can get access to those kinds of tests that would significantly change what we do with pre-travel testing with what we do with inter-island quarantine.
Q: After such a promising start in the pandemic, how did Hawaii get where it is now?
The community was terrific in heeding the restrictions, stopping celebrations. From February to May and June, people delayed graduation celebrations, they delayed birthdays, everything. Everybody put their lives on hold in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. And we saw beginning Memorial Day and then clearly by 4th of July weekend people had let down their guard and more and more people were trying to catch up on the celebrations that we missed.
We saw first birthday parties in the parks and at the beaches, people just began to relax and we saw the surge. We went from 10s to 100s to 200s to 300s in relatively short order, probably two- to three-week span we just saw the explosion of cases and once it got to that level and the virus was spreading readily in our community it became harder and harder to re-contain the virus and take action.
Q: What would you have done differently to prevent the surge in cases we saw in August?
We could have staffed up more on contact tracing and some of those activities. We did have plans to do that. We had executed the training program with the University of Hawaii and tried to get more people trained. We definitely could have done that earlier and that may have helped but just remember that contact tracing and disease investigation is really an after-the-fact activity.
People are infected and the virus was already circulating. It might have helped us maybe narrow the peak but clearly the hundreds of people that were infected and were circulating in our community was already there and we could’ve responded and staffed up sooner, but I don’t believe we would have been able to avoid the surge completely.
Q; You have seen high-profile departures of directors in recent months but no one has been fired. Does that mean you believe your team has done an adequate job in the response so far?
I’ve always believed that we can do better and I’m one that believes in continuous process of improvement. I’m excited about the new leadership team. They do bring a new energy. We are definitely more focused about serving the public in a better way.
We know that we want to be more proactive in different areas. We want to be more transparent and focus the Department of Haelth in providing information and measures of accountability that people are asking for. I think all of these are important parts of us as we move forward and we do have a new leadership team that is committed to implementing all of those actions as we move forward.