Clarence Nishihara, a Hawaii state senator representing the Waipahu-Pearl City area, learned Thursday that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

According to a press release, it is the first known case of coronavirus at the Hawaii State Capitol building.

Senate President Ron Kouchi has sent a memo to all staff informing them of the positive test result.

It recommends that all Senate offices close until further notice.

“More information will be provided as it becomes available,” the memo states.

Chair Senator Clarence Nishihara on legislative briefing on prisons.
Sen. Clarence Nishihara at a legislative briefing on prisons in January 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Reached at his residence early Thursday evening, Nishihara said he felt fine. He said he received the positive test result from an Urgent Care Hawaii doctor when he was at his State Capitol office Thursday morning.

Nishihara immediately told his two staff members as well as Kouchi, Senate Clerk Carol Taniguchi and Senate Sergeant at Arms Ben Villaflor, because he had come into face-to-face contact with them the same day.

“I had to tell them so they could get checked out if they needed to,” he said.

Nishihara is a Democrat in his fourth term representing District 17.

He is chair of the Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee.

After learning of Nishihara’s diagnosis, House Speaker Scott Saiki issued a memo to all members and staff Thursday afternoon notifying them that the House will be closed through April 5.

“Please make immediate arrangements to leave your workplace as soon as possible,” the memo states. “Do not return until given clearance that it is okay to do so.”

Saiki said the Legislature’s Emergency Operations Plan requires that an employee testing positive triggers an immediate closure of the Capitol and indefinite suspension of the legislative session.

The Legislature suspended its 2020 session last week due to the spreading pandemic, but many lawmakers and staff planned to keep working at the Capitol and are being paid.

The work was to include a special committee meeting Thursday and Friday to advise the Senate on the state’s COVID-19 plans and procedures.

It was at that Thursday meeting that senators learned that Nishihara had recently returned from Las Vegas and was infected, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green. Senators were being advised on screening procedures at Hawaii’s airports.

According to Dr. Jim Ireland, Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting medical director for the state — he was at the meeting too — senators concluded it and made arrangements to bring a coronavirus testing group to the Capitol to offer tests to any senators, representatives or staff in the building at the time.

A swabbing team in the process of suiting up Thursday afternoon in personal protective equipment at the Capitol Auditorium to screen people for coronavirus. Submitted/2020

Ireland said he and Green, also a medical doctor, did not want the Capitol personnel to leave the building before they were tested. He estimates that as many as 70 people were screened and swabbed. It is not clear how many people were infected.

A meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness was scheduled for Monday and is now canceled.

Nishihara, who left the Capitol for home shortly after learning of his diagnosis, said his doctor ordered him to self-quarantine at home for the next 14 days.

“Even my niece in Seattle heard the news,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s amazing how fast it spread. It almost went viral.”

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