How Hawaii addresses the COVID-19 crisis in the next few weeks is likely to have a significant impact on the coronavirus for months or years to come, a committee of political and business leaders said on Monday.

“These are likely to be the two most critical weeks in the life cycle of the pandemic,” Ray Vara, chief executive of Hawaii Pacific Health, told fellow members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness.

Vara laid out a five-point plan he said should guide policymakers during this critical time. It consists of changing leadership in state agencies; providing accurate and transparent data on the disease; effectively executing testing, contact tracing and quarantine functions; establishing a world-class communications plan and providing education and executing enforcement of personal responsibilities.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done over the next couple of weeks,” he said.

House Committee on COVID19. Raymond Vara, President and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health speaks during committee meeting. July 13, 2020
Raymond Vara, chief executive of Hawaii Pacific Health, says the next two weeks are critical for Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Vara’s comments came less than a week after Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell issued a shutdown order for all but essential businesses and a stay-at-home order for Oahu residents.

Designed to rein in a virus that has spread out of control on the island, the order is much the same as one Caldwell issued in late March. The earlier order all but eliminated new COVID-19 cases on Oahu, but when the economy began to reopen in June, the Hawaii Department of Health didn’t implement a plan designed to keep the virus in controlled clusters by using extensive contact tracing, testing and isolation of those infected and their close contacts.

The current shut down is meant to get the virus under control again with the hope that the health department can do a better job of keeping a lid on the disease when things open the second time.

To that end, Gov. David Ige on Monday said he had accepted the resignation of Department of Health director Bruce Anderson and the appointment of Dr. Libby Char as interim director. Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda also resigned as officials found hundreds of cases of the virus in the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Members of the House COVID-19 committee applauded the change in leadership but questioned whether getting rid of Anderson would be enough to solve the department’s problems.

“We know it goes much deeper than that,” Vara said. He spoke of the need for cultural change in the department and specifically the need for greater transparency.

House Committee on COVID19. Speaker Scott Saiki mediates meeting on Olelo.
House Speaker Scott Saiki, who co-chairs the House COVID-19 committee, said he is concerned that the Department of Health lacks data necessary to guide the public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

That call echoed those of House Speaker Scott Saiki, the committee co-chair, who also expressed dismay with the department’s lack of openness. Saiki on Aug. 6 wrote Anderson seeking data on topics such as date and location of transmission, the type of activity or event where the transmission occurred and whether the infected individual was masked or unmasked.

On Monday, Saiki shared the department’s belated response, which Saiki said didn’t provide the data he had been looking for.

“My fear is that the health department has not been collecting this data,” he said.

The committee also announced new initiatives for communications. The new Hawaii COVID Collaborative — which will have $1 million in funding provided by members of the House committee and its partners — includes organizations like the Hawaii Community Foundation, Disney’s Aulani Resort and Spa, HMSA, Bank of Hawaii and the Hawaii Data Collaborative. A related organization, COVIDPAU, aims to create a better understanding of how people can be safe through a series of videos showing the effect of the virus on individuals and families.

Saiki said the committee may seek out other data sets, including information from hospitals and insurers if the information can be obtained without violating privacy laws.

Along with the push for transparency and the communications program came a call for a cultural change. Peter Ho, chairman and chief executive of Bank of Hawaii who co-chairs the committee, said the pandemic is likely to extend well into 2021, and he said the community needs to develop a resilient can-do spirit and “the ability to be relentless against a relentless adversary.”

Despite such calls to action and considerable work by community leaders who have large companies to run, one challenge remains: the House COVID-19 committee is just that – a legislative committee. And it will be up to Ige to craft and execute a plan to move Hawaii forward – something he failed to do the first time around, when Hawaii had all but eliminated the spread of the virus.

Asked about the committee’s powers to effect change, Saiki said the committee has not only lawmaking and budgetary authority but also the power of a bully pulpit composed of leaders from across Hawaii, from hospitals and nonprofits to housing advocates and large corporations.

“The committee can’t be ignored because of the caliber of people on the committee,” he said. “My feeling is the public gives a lot of deference to the committee.”

Ige’s spokeswomen Cindy McMillan and Jodi Leong did not respond to an email seeking Ige’s response to the committee’s proposal.

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