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Governor addresses vaccination efforts, rebuilding economy

Updated: Dec. 23, 2020 at 11:06 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Over the last nine months, the COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt upended life in Hawaii — and changes are still happening on a daily basis.

Vaccinations are underway, but most of the state won’t receive them for months. Meanwhile, the economy remains shattered with tourism making a slow recovery and businesses struggling to get by.

Thousands are still waiting for their unemployment benefits, and furloughs for state workers are on the horizon.

In a live interview with Hawaii News Now Sunrise, Gov. David Ige discussed all of the many issues facing Hawaii, addressing everything from what the federal coronavirus relief bill will mean for state furloughs to the unemployment crisis to vaccinations.

If President Trump signs the coronavirus relief bill, what will this mean for state workers with furloughs looming?

We are reviewing the contents of the bill and we’re encouraged they are providing a lot of direct aid to the state, so we’re going through the provisions and trying to understand what restrictions there might be to the funds that will come to the state, and if we do have sufficient funds then we may be able to delay the furloughs until July.

At what point do you make the decision?

We wish there was additional aid provided by Congress earlier, but they just passed it this week, so we are reviewing it. Certainly we are hopeful that the president signs the measure.

If the state gets the money, at that point, will you decide?

As soon as we get a determination about whether the president signs it as we are reviewing it right now, try and see how much funds would be coming directly to the state and what flexibility we would have, and then we would be making a final decision on whether the furloughs start on January 1 or we would be able to delay it.

In this relief bill, does it only help teachers or all state workers?

It does help all the state workers in the sense that they’re providing direct funding for private schools. They’re also providing funding to the Department of Health, which would help contact tracing, testing and the vaccine distribution. So I was prepared to fund those activities because they are so important to maintaining our public health, and that was more than $300 million that we were seeking from the Legislature as emergency appropriations or other needs. And if there are those kinds of funds in this relief bill, that would help with delaying the furlough.

It’s still possible to delay all state furloughs until July?

Yes.

Unions and state workers are saying this couldn’t come at a worse time. Would you consider not balancing the budget in 2021 with the way things are going now?

Right now, we will already be in deficit spending. We’ll be spending more than we take in fiscal year 2021, but what we’re looking at doing is we had established and re-established the reserves that we had, which would allow us to delay and which has allowed us to delay the furloughs up until this point in time. So we continue, as I’ve said many times before.

Furloughs are not something I want to do - it’s something that I might have to do because we just don’t have the funds to make payroll.

Do you feel comfortable with students going back to campus and are you concerned about the metrics of the increasing number of students failing?

We definitely are concerned about the number of students that are failing. It’s been just a challenging year because we’ve had to redo everything that we do in public schools. We went from 100% in-person learning to 100% distance learning, essentially. Some students don’t have access, that’s a problem. They don’t have the technology or internet access that they need to be able to take the courses. Some students don’t have the discipline or the support in the home to really be able to learn on their own via distance and we look forward to the vaccines being distributed.

I did want to note that the vaccines are really for adults at this point. There are ongoing studies to evaluate the effectiveness and safety for children, so I do hope we get a vaccine that can be effective for children. That will make a game changer for us at the public schools. At the same time, all public school employees are priorities in terms of vaccinations. I believe that public school employees are part of priority 1B, and we definitely would be looking to vaccinate teachers and those that work on our schools.

How are you working with the superintendent?

We are looking at - I always believe that those closest to the children should be making the most important decisions and so, complex area superintendents and principals have been looking at the community needs and making decisions about in-person learning or online and the transition from in-person to online.

There are a lot of different things that go into creating a safe learning environment for our children and we continue to work with those on the frontlines, thinking about what would be in the best interest of the student.

What is your plan for the public to get vaccinated?

The Department of Health is working and looking at CDC guidelines to determine the priorities for those who would get vaccinated. As you know, older Americans and those with underlying conditions would be a high priority. Those residents in long-term facilities and the staff are currently getting vaccinated as a priority and so we will be moving the vaccines through the system as quickly as I can.

I would like to note, on a call with the White House last week, they said that Moderna and Pfizer are contracted to deliver 100 million doses of the vaccine by the end of March, so we do anticipate continued increase in the numbers of vaccines that we’re getting and we do hope to be able to provide for all the priority people but then begin to offer the vaccine to those in the general public.

We are looking at a number of things. Grace, if you can imagine, we have to vaccinate between 700 and 800,000 people in a relatively short window. Libby Char is heading a vaccination planning group that is hundreds of people now, really working with the counties because we know that through the surge testing, the counties were really instrumental in helping work through the logistics.

We’re working with a lot of the professional organizations about how, for example, do we begin to offer vaccinations for those in the visitor industry. How do we reach teachers and public school employees? If you look at the large gatherings and groups of people, the large employers, we are working with all of them to coordinate and think about how we can get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we get the doses and be able to get them out to the public.

Is there anything the public should be doing to get on the vaccination list?

Well clearly, everyone in the public will eventually get the opportunity to get vaccinated. Those in the priority areas, we are working with key organizations who can reach many of those in the priority areas to schedule distribution of the vaccine and then make sure that we have the employees who can administer them.

CVS and Walgreens has a national contract to provide the vaccines and we’re working with them as well, so I think you will see a lot of different people and organizations who will be able to get the vaccines and administer it as we get more and more doses.

What are you doing to ease the burden of unemployment?

That is the number one call and email that I get. It is about people who are struggling, who are unable to get benefits, and it is heartbreaking. It’s a challenging time. Unfortunately the unemployment information system is just so old and antiquated and there’s really very few shortcuts that we can take.

It is frustrating I know for many people, and every time there’s a new program and benefit that the federal government rolls out, we have to re-enroll and re-qualify every single individual. And so if you can imagine, we did have that huge backlog at the beginning of the pandemic. We got through that and we qualified people and then when the extended benefits started, every single person had to re-enroll and re-qualify in order for them to receive payments, and then once again, as the PUA program and other programs changed, we had to re-qualify everyone once again, and that has been a huge challenge because of the poor information system that we have.

With so many residents struggling financially, what advice can you offer them?

As you know, we do have a call center that’s online through the end of the year. They’ve been responding to and taking calls. We’ve hired additional adjudicators to be able to take those most challenging cases and be able to adjudicate and get a determination about their eligibility and we are looking to extend those programs into the new year.

I am so sorry that we are unable to reach everyone. It’s been a challenge for us here. The employees, the public servants are just working so hard to reach as many people as quickly as they can and it is just a huge problem. Every single week, I know that more people are applying and we are trying to get to as many people as quickly as we can.

The Hawaiian Homes Commission has voted to move forward with a plan to build a casino resort in Kapolei. Do you support this?

I don’t support gambling. I really don’t believe that it’s appropriate for our community. I appreciate the Hawaiian Homes Commission, looking at ways to get additional resources. We have developing homestead lands for revenue purposes.

I do think the Ka Makana Alii shopping center out in Kapolei has been a good start and we need to look at other ways to generate revenues and income for the Hawaiian Homes program. But I don’t support casino gambling. The costs to our community is high and really, it would be changing the nature of our hospitality industry here in the islands.

Does that mean the plan is effectively dead?

I’m certain as in past that anyone can introduce bills and I’m certain that someone would introduce the measure and it would be presented to the Legislature. The difference, primarily, would be whether it would be a proposal that’s fully supported by the administration or not, and clearly, I do not support casino gambling here in the islands.

What are you expecting for 2021?

I’m really encouraged with the vaccine. The country has never developed a vaccine so quickly and I want to assure the public it’s safe and effective. Many scientists looked at the data and clearly, no corners were cut in terms of the safety and efficiency evaluations that went into it. So I think that really is a game changer, Grace.

We do really want to get our students back to in-person learning. There is no substitute for a highly effective teacher in the classroom with students and certainly, they may not start there and we’ll be phasing in students for in-person learning, but we can say for certain, next school year, we’ll probably be at the point where we’ll be back to in-person learning and from now until then, we’ll be transitioning and getting more and more students in the classroom.

You know it will be tough, this revenue shortfall is real and it’s not going to go away. We will have budget challenges here in the state. But it will be so different because - you know, we can get back to what we normally do.

The hardest part about this COVID pandemic is that we can’t do the things we normally do. I talked to my children, they’re not coming back for Christmas. This is the first Christmas that Dawn and I will be celebrating alone, and we won’t even be having our Hawaii-based family over like we normally do and that’s been hard. We had to delay celebrations, we missed 1st birthday parties and graduations.

Everyone in our community has been willing to give up in order to make our community healthier. And I’m really proud. Hawaii continues to have the lowest infection rate in the country. It’s because every individual has put our community first and done the things, wear our mask, wash our hands, keep our distances to stop the infection. So I’m really looking forward to economic recovery, getting people back to work in the visitor industry, being able to support our restaurants. It will be a slow and challenging year, but it will definitely be better than 2020.

Will you allow people who are vaccinated to travel to Hawaii without getting tested or having to quarantine?

Yes, the vaccinations does give us another opportunity. We’re trying to understand exactly how people will be able to provide proof that they’ve been vaccinated and clearly, those who have received the vaccinations, pose no risk to having COVID-19 or infecting others. So we are working and incorporating those who get vaccinated into our Safe Travels program. And as more and more people across the country and around the world get vaccinated, that will make a huge difference for our visitor industry.

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