Many Honolulu businesses will be required to close again as they were in early March as the island ramps up testing, contact tracing and quarantine efforts with the help of the federal government.
The new emergency order will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday and will last for two weeks, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said. It comes as there are 4,472 active COVID-19 cases on Oahu, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green, making up most of the cases statewide.
Parks, beaches and trails will remain closed and commercial operations like hair salons, dine-in restaurants and gyms will also be shut down. Restaurants can offer takeout, the mayor said. Essential businesses like grocery stores and child care providers may continue to operate, Caldwell said, as well as religious services.
Flanked by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Gov. David Ige, Caldwell announced Oahu will also undergo a three-part intervention.
It will include “surge testing” of 60,000 people in the next two weeks, the hiring of 250 to 500 new contact tracers to boost Hawaii health department efforts and contracting for 130 more local hotel rooms to allow infected members of large families, particularly in the Pacific Islander and Filipino communities, to isolate and quarantine away from their families. With this expanded capacity, there will be more than 300 rooms available in Honolulu.
The federal government will pay for the testing, the state will cover the contact tracing and the city is paying for the hotel.
Officials hope these efforts, combined with continued mask use, hand-washing and limitations on gatherings, will help reduce the number of cases in Honolulu. The island had 215 new cases as of Tuesday, contributing to a total of nearly 7,000.
“We can get through this,” Caldwell said. “We can do this. We did it once. We can do it again and when we reopen it’ll be different than the first time.”
Amid surging cases last week, Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, contacted the city asking how the feds could help, according to the mayor’s office.
“They stood up, and they responded,” the mayor said. “(The Surgeon General) is committed to Oahu for the next couple days to help us.”
Caldwell’s office did not immediately provide a written copy of the order, which does not impact the neighbor islands.
Also on Tuesday, the city announced that starting on Sept. 1, it will require all riders of TheBus and TheHandi-Van to wear a mask or face covering over the nose and mouth, when boarding and for the duration of their ride. There will be no exceptions to the “no mask, no ride” rule.
Regarding testing, the goal is to test 5,000 people per day on top of the Department of Health’s testing efforts, which Ige said have totaled between 1,000 to 2,000 tests per day.
“The whole point of the surge testing is so anyone for any reason can get tested,” Adams said. “We want to get a handle on who’s got it and who doesn’t. You do not need a doctor’s order. You do not need any money. It’s free. We want everyone to get tested.”
Adams said people should seek a test even if they were tested and found to be negative previously. The test, as demonstrated by Adams during a press conference, involves the patient self-swabbing each of their nostrils and dropping the specimen in a tube – not the insertion of a long brush into the nasal cavity by a healthcare professional.
The test is easy and painless, Adams said, and patients should get results in two to three days with the help of labs outside of Hawaii. Patients will be asked for their name, phone number and email address so they can receive their results.
“Please get tested over the next two weeks,” he said. “Make sure you know your status. Make sure you know the status of the people who you live, work, learn and pray with, and encourage them to get tested.”
Honolulu’s announcement follows other temporary surge testing efforts in COVID-19 hot spots throughout the country including Jacksonville, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Edinburg, Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
To pull it off, DHHS partnered with eTrueNorth, a small Texas company that was awarded $90 million in federal contracts to help oversee more than 350 testing sites, according to the health news site Stat.
“The federal program won’t replace other state and local sites, but it will help boost testing in cities with high rates of new cases and help diagnose people who are asymptomatic,” NBC News reported in July.
The free testing was “offered” to the Department of Public Safety for Oahu’s prisoners but officials are “still working on logistics to see if it is possible,” according to Caldwell Communications Director Alexander Zannes.
Currently, Oahu is at a medium, or “yellow,” threat level, meaning positive cases make up from five to 10% of tests, Adams said. Officials are trying to prevent the island from going into the “red,” in which positive cases are over 10% of those tested.
New York now has a positivity rate of less than 1%, Adams said.
“And they’ve done it without a vaccine, they’ve done it without any miracle drugs,” he said. “They’ve done it with the 3 W’s: washing your hands, wearing a mask, and watching your distance along with making sure people are tested so that they know their status and they can behave appropriately.”
Green said the Pacific Islander community has been hit especially hard. The group makes up only 4% of the population but 30% of COVID-19 cases.
“An order to stay at home will keep people alive,” Green said.
The surge testing is set to begin on Wednesday, Aug. 26 at Kaneohe District Park and Leeward Community College. It will be a drive-through operation run in part by the Honolulu Fire Department’s All Hazards Incident Management Team and will run at various locations for 12 consecutive days. Officials are encouraging Honolulu residents to visit www.doineedacovid19test.com to find a testing location and register for an appointment.
Honolulu will be spreading the word about testing through news outlets and social media, Zannes said.
For people who need to isolate, Caldwell said the city has retained an entire 130-room hotel and is looking to contract with more. This is being paid for with federal grant funds, according to a press release from Ige’s office.
Caldwell did not identify the hotel currently under contract, stating anonymity is part of their agreement. As Caldwell described it, the program allows people who test positive to avoid exposing other members of their household, and also to prevent those household members from further spreading the virus with their own contacts.
Eddie Mersereau, deputy director of the DOH’s Behavioral Health Administration, said isolation hotel workers will be trained in infection control procedures.
The mayor’s office said the city is working in coordination with DOH to “determine a pool of candidates” for the contact tracing jobs. Brigadier General Kenneth Hara and the National Guard are running point on the contact tracing, the mayor’s office said.
At the press conference, City Councilman Joey Manahan, a Filipino American who represents Kalihi and Iwilei, criticized state failures that necessitated the feds stepping in.
He said the state failed to test and trace COVID-19 adequately “while the curve was flat,” and now the pandemic is stressing the health care system and the economy. He also called the Department of Health out on its refusal to accept the city’s help early on when it wanted to provide testing through community health centers.
“The DOH tied the city’s hands when we offered to test communities on the front line of the pandemic back in April,” he said.
The result has been a testing scheme that “has not been equitable,” Manahan said.
“The state’s decision to coordinate testing with hospitals only is proving costly for our working families who access their health care at a federally qualified community health center,” he said.
“Until now, there has been no plan of action from the state or guidance for residents of public housing, with regards to the cases that are proliferating inside. The same can be said for guards and inmates inside our prison system.”
He added that his district and the island, in general, haven’t felt relief from the Department of Health’s deployment of CARES Act money for testing and contact tracing.
“So, that said, and I’m not trying to blame anybody, I’m glad that the federal government and the county are stepping in to provide more social justice and equity in the current testing and tracing programs,” he said. “This is welcome news, not just for me in my district but really for the county of Oahu and for the state of Hawaii.”
The city’s own response to the pandemic has also been criticized.
The decision by Caldwell and Ige to shut down public parks, beaches and trails earlier this month while leaving open private outdoor spaces and indoor businesses like gyms angered many city residents. It also baffled epidemiologists who said the decision was not based on science. Studies show COVID-19 risk is much higher indoors than it is outdoors.
The move caused confusion and frustration among residents who have reported being issued criminal citations for walking alone through empty parks. It also got the attention of the New York Times and FOX News commentator Laura Ingraham.
Nevertheless, Caldwell stood by his decision on Tuesday to continue to keep parks, beaches and trails closed.
“It’s all about trying to control how people gather,” he said.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, well over a dozen Honolulu police officers were gathered in Kapiolani Park for an apparent training exercise, according to a photo snapped by Hunter Heaivillin, who chairs the executive committee of Sierra Club’s Oahu group.
Caldwell indicated that gathering was fine because he “can’t think of a more essential group.”
And the award for largest gathering I’ve seen in a park in months goes to… @honolulupolice!
It was easy enough for me to spot this large gathering, I’d think @MayorKirkHNL’s officers are more than capable of doing the same and distinguishing between small & big groups
— Hunter Heaivilin (@supersistence) August 25, 2020