The loss of federal stimulus funding next month for the Hawaii National Guard will be a significant blow to Hawaii’s COVID-19 response efforts, especially amid fears of more holiday-related hospitalizations and as COVID-19 cases surge on the continent.

Approximately 850 Hawaii National Guard soldiers and airmen have played a major role in the pandemic response in the islands, assisting various state agencies by conducting temperature checks and COVID-19 screening at airports, working as data analysts and contact tracers at the Department of Health, and conducting testing and educational outreach at schools, businesses and low-income neighborhoods.

The Guard was also behind a mass drive-thru COVID-19 testing effort on the H-3 federal highway in September.

“The National Guard has been tremendously important and they really stepped up and helped the Department of Health a ton,” Department of Health Director Dr. Libby Char said.

Hawaii Army National Guard member James Kamaka checks the temperature of a traveler at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. The federal funding for Hawaii Army National Guard to serve in COVID-19 response roles expires in December. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Hawaii National Guard was first mobilized in April on assignment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The assignment was extended twice and is set to expire in December. Funding for their compensation was cut slightly in August from a 100% contribution from the federal government to a 75% contribution but their continued operations were covered by federal funds diverted by the Hawaii Department of Defense, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

The Hawaii National Guard is working with the emergency management agencies of each county and the Department of Health to determine which missions are most critical and should continue, according to Brig. Gen. Moses Kaoiwi Jr., the commander of the Hawaii National Guard Joint Task Force.

“Extension of the Hawaii National Guard in mitigating COVID-19 will be determined by any additional funding that the State of Hawaii receives,” he said in an email to Civil Beat.

Brig. Gen. Moses Kaoiwi Jr., Commander of the Hawaii National Guard Joint Task Force, said the guard is consulting with state agencies about which roles are most critical to keep. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

There doesn’t seem to be a concrete backup plan yet for finding the funding to keep such initiatives going — either with the help from the National Guard or others.

The health department, for example, is already scrambling to figure out what to do once federal coronavirus relief funding from the CARES Act also expires in December. Char said the health department is looking at what it could “shift” within its state budget and for other grant opportunities.

“Where can we find other funds, because we know people are still going to have the need? I don’t have any easy answers. We’re asking everywhere we can,” Char said. “There are a lot of resources being expended on COVID and that’s not going to stop at the end of the year even if CARES funding stops at the end of the year. People are still going to have those needs and we’re still going to have to tend to them. Therein lies the challenge.”

Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, a member of the Hawaii Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, said she saw first hand the role Hawaii National Guard members played at the state’s contact tracing headquarters at the Hawaii Convention Center. As of October, approximately 60 Hawaii National Guards members were assisting the DOH Disease Investigation Branch with contact tracing and disease investigation and case tracking throughout all counties.

“The National Guard will be gone in December unless there’s some change in the federal administration’s policy that can allow us to continue to receive federal funds and also support from the National Guard,” she said.

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