Although the state has a system to send statewide text messages, it won’t use that to communicate information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic to the public, Gov. David Ige says.

State senators have called on Ige to implement such a system to better communicate health information and reminders to the public, including orders to stay at home and maintain social distancing.

A similar system has been used in South Korea as well as certain counties on the mainland hard hit by the virus.

But in a letter to the state Senate on Wednesday, Ige said text communication would be better left to the counties.

Governor David Ige speaks at the Legislature Coronavirus Committee Hearing held at the Capitol.
Gov. David Ige said a statewide text alert system won’t be used to communicate health information to the public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Although the State has a text communication system, it is reserved for catastrophic or defense purposes as advised by military authorities,” Ige says in the letter.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Senate COVID-19 Committee, said a text alert system would work better at the state level because many functions the public is interested in, such as health, education and unemployment, are located in state government.

“Hawaii is a small state,” Dela Cruz said. “We’re in a different situation. Other places have their own departments of health, they deal with education at a smaller level. We don’t.”

Ige’s letter seems to contradict some of what he’s said publicly regarding an alert system.

The governor’s office told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Wednesday morning that it is working toward implementing a public health alert system. At an afternoon press conference, Ige said the state doesn’t have a statewide text alert system, and that it could implement one in the future.

But in both his letter and at the press conference, Ige says he spoke with the counties on using their text systems to send additional messages to the public. He said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell was interested in pursuing it on Oahu.

In his letter, Ige also said Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim uses a text system to communicate to the public.

Dela Cruz said the committee will follow up with how the state is communicating information to the public at a hearing Friday. Sens. Jarrett Keohokalole, Michelle Kidani, Donna Mercado Kim, Sharon Moriwaki and Kurt Fevella are also on the committee.

The senators first sent a letter asking for the text system because they felt not everyone is taking stay at home orders seriously.

“We believe more aggressive messaging to the public is needed,” the senators said in their initial letter Tuesday.

Information on how the state is planning to deal with COVID-19 has come piecemeal from Senate hearings or daily press briefings held in the governor’s office.

The state Department of Health has been working with an unnamed public relations agency on their COVID-19 messaging, DOH Director Bruce Anderson told senators last week.

On Monday, the department also began airing commercials on social distancing and hygiene with local comedian Frank De Lima. 

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