The Hawaii Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday agreed to appropriate about $10.5 million to the Department of Health and other state agencies to deal with the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, outbreak.

But the figure could grow higher as the state scrambles to respond to what has already become an international crisis.

Senate Bill 75 comes at the emergency request of Gov. David Ige, who on Tuesday asked for $7.2 million from the Legislature for the departments of Health and Defense in order to “prevent and mitigate” within the state.

The bill initially called for $6 million, but that changed as the DOH, the DOD and the state Department of Transportation told senators they needed more money.

Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and Co Chair Gil Keith Agaran during hearing on funding emergency appropriations in response to future COVID-19 Coronavirus health concerns.
Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and Vice Chair Gil Keith-Agaran listen during Thursday’s hearing on funding emergency appropriations in response to COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Testifying before WAM, Ige’s chief of staff, Linda Chu Takayama, said the funds were needed to respond to an “unexpected threat” to the health and safety of Hawaii.

SB 75 was amended to allocate $6.6 million for the DOH, nearly $2.8 million for the DOT to help prepare airports and harbors, and about $1.2 million for the DOD to be spent on thermometers, personal protective equipment for responders, operating and office supplies for field work and contract labor for special service planners.

WAM Chair Donovan Dela Cruz left open the possibility the figure could go higher. The Senate appropriation is for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Separately, the state House of Representatives is expected to rewrite House Bill 1629 to address long-term needs, according to Carolyn Tanaka, the House communications director.

While SB 75 is a short form bill that allows lawmakers to write new legislation when necessary, HB 1629 is a measure from the 2019 session that was deferred in the House Finance Committee.

Instead of clarifying aspects of the Office of the Legislative Analyst, the bill — through the practice of “gut and replace” — will now be the vehicle for emergency funding.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Chris Tatum during a WAM hearing concering funding of future COVID-19 concerns.
Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Chris Tatum told senators that the coronavirus’ impact on the visitor industry has been minimal, but that could change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

While $10.5 million is a “modest” amount, as WAM Vice Chair Gil Keith-Agaran described it, there is a growing recognition among state officials that the COVID-19 scare could quickly get out of control.

The legislative action comes as congressional leaders on Thursday said they are nearing a bipartisan plan to issue “significant emergency funding” to address rising fears sparked by the spread of the coronavirus.

More airlines are canceling flights to and from Asia, where the virus originated in Wuhan, China. Sen. Kai Kahele, an airline pilot for Hawaiian Airlines, remarked that he had never seen his carrier cancel flights before as the airline did Wednesday in suspending travel to South Korea for a month.

Also on Thursday global markets tumbled for a sixth day because of concerns over the virus. In the case of the Dow, it was the worst one-day point drop in history.

CNN reported Thursday afternoon that there have been more than 82,000 cases in 51 countries and regions — in every continent except Antartica.

Test Kits Coming Soon

According to the DOH website, there have been no reported cases in Hawaii although the department continues “to monitor the situation closely.”

But the state is not simply standing by. Agencies have been asked to update their emergency plans, and fast.

Hawaii State Epidemiologist Sarah Park appeared on Ige’s Facebook Live program Thursday and said virus “testing capacity” could be available in the islands as early as next week.

While the health risk in the islands remains low, Chu did point to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s confirmation this week that a COVID-19 infection in California occurred in a person who apparently did not have relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient with COVID-19.

That case brings the total number of cases in the U.S. to 15.

Hawaii State Epidemiologist Sarah Park appeared on Gov. Ige’s Facebook live program Thursday and said virus “testing capacity” could be available in the islands as early as next week. At right is Dani Wong Tomiyasu with the state DOH. Screenshot/2020

As of Thursday, no one in Hawaii had met the CDC’s criteria to be tested for the coronavirus directly, which the state is to be thankful for, since it does not yet have the capability.

Testing, according to the national CDC standard, is reserved for people who are showing suspect symptoms, those who have traveled to high-risk areas, or others who have been exposed to people who are infected.

Hilton Raethel, president and CEO at Healthcare Association of Hawaii, acknowledged it could take five to seven days to get swab results from the CDC lab in Atlanta.

Now that the Hawaii laboratory is undergoing validation testing of its kits, diagnoses could soon be made within about four hours, Raethel said.

Going forward, if someone is suspected of having COVID-19 in Hawaii due to symptoms and travel history, they will be placed in precautionary isolation until a coronavirus diagnosis is confirmed.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said hospitals across the state are already actively screening people.

“Everyone who comes to the hospital with upper respiratory symptoms at any hospital now is going to be asked where they traveled, and whether they have symptoms like shortness of breath,” Green told Civil Beat.

Prior kits sent by the CDC to several states were faulty, and diagnostic testing capability has been delayed for a few weeks.

State Economists To Weigh Impact

Meanwhile, senators expressed concern that Hawaii may be particularly vulnerable because of tourism. Several asked Department of Education officials whether there were plans in place for evacuating schools. Sen. Kurt Fevella raised concerns that surgical masks were selling out of island stores.

Majority Leader J. Kalani English said he was especially worried that remote parts of the island chain may not have the access they need for new supplies and equipment. He expressed concern that the gears of state operations could halt if a pandemic should erupt here.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Chris Tatum said that, while the impact to Hawaii’s market has thus far been minimal, he is anticipating future travel cancellations.

Meanwhile, Eugene Tian, the state economist, told Civil Beat that worries over COVID-19 will have an impact on the state’s tax revenues if less tourists are coming to Hawaii.

Tian doesn’t have exact numbers yet, but he is scheduled to brief the state Council on Revenues on March 11 on the virus’ impact. The council is a panel of tax experts that set projections of tax revenues lawmakers use to build the state’s budget.

More Hand Sanitizer, Please

The DOH appropriations in SB 75 includes $2.5 million for disease outbreak surveillance and response including protective equipment, specimen collection kits, mobile internet connectivity, supplies for vaccines, and overtime and contract work.

The bill also calls for the following:

  • $1.3 million for laboratory testing, equipment, supplies and additional staff;
  • $800,000 for a public multimedia education and awareness campaign;
  • $200,000 for quarantine and self-monitoring;
  • $200,000 for the Kauai County district health office;
  • $500,000 to the Hawaii County district health office;
  • $300,000 to the Maui County district health office; and
  • $200,000 for command supplies and equipment including hand sanitizer stations.

The money for state agencies is in addition to their existing budgets. Chu said there is the possibility of federal funding to aid Hawaii.

For now, officials are not publicly panicking. Health officials say proper prevention still includes washing hands for 20 seconds, covering coughs with tissue or arms and washing hands right after, staying away from sick people and staying home if sick.

At the same time, based on the emergency funding and the anxiety of lawmakers and the people they represent, it is obvious that Hawaii is entering a new phase regarding the coronavirus.

“This is a matter of when it occurs,” said Chu, who pointed out that the regular flu has already killed 10,000 Americans this year. “Containment was the initial focus … The focus now is on mitigation.”

Blaze Lovell and Eleni Gill contributed to this article.

Register to attend our next Civil Cafe: Legislative Update. Panelists include House Speaker Scott Saiki, Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, and Civil Beat public health reporter Eleni Gill. It’s at noon, Wednesday, in Room 329 at the Hawaii State Capitol.

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