Hawaii House Speaker's Travel Bill Should Be Allowed To Die - Honolulu Civil Beat

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On March 8, the United States reported the good news that our number of new COVID-19 cases had dropped from a high of more than 200,000 per day to 65,000 per day.

At the same time, Europe reported the bad news that their number of new cases had also been dropping but had recently started to go back up again. This spiking appears to be driven by the new variants.

This news brings us back to a bill that has already passed first reading in the state Senate but hopefully will not survive.

HB1286 HD2 was introduced by House Speaker Scott Saiki. It has three main components:

  • It mandates that all counties have the same Safe Travels Program. This essentially means that Kauai can no longer operate with its special requirement of a second test after arrival.
  • It removes the governor’s and the mayors’ ability to use emergency powers. These powers were enacted under chapter 127A, the Emergency Management Act.
  • It allows some trans-Pacific travelers to take a COVID-19 test in Hawaii if they arrive in the state without such a test or the results of such a test.

The bill should be allowed to die in the Senate as none of the three parts of the bill will be helpful to the current situation for the following reasons:

1. Kauai’s Mayor Derek Kawakami received permission to re-enter the state’s Safe Travel’s Program on April 5 so mandating a return to the program is no longer necessary.

2. The bill takes away the flexible and potentially rapid response emergency powers currently held by the governor and turns the COVID-19 guidelines into law that can only be amended by the Legislature. Legislative bodies by their very nature are negotiating platforms and slow responders. These bodies are not designed to respond quickly and flexibly to emergency situations.

House Speaker Scott Saiki during floor session held at the Capitol during the COVID-19 pandemic. March 9, 2021.
House Speaker Scott Saiki participating in a floor session at the Capitol earlier this month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

If COVID-19 really is on the decline nationally, the county mayors and Governor Ige should continue to work together to open up. But if we see sudden, dangerous spikes in disease, particularly spikes caused by variants, these same leaders need the power to act rapidly to close down, speed up immunizations and take any other necessary actions.

Emergency powers, by their very nature, must be free from the bureaucracy of multiple legislative committees and the approval of both chambers. These powers are currently granted to the governor under Chapter 127A, the Emergency Management Act.

Experts around the world are telling us that there may be a dramatic decrease in COVID-19 by summer but that we have entered a very vulnerable stage. The world is essentially in a race between vaccines and variants. The variants appear to be significantly more contagious than the original virus and some appear to be more deadly.

Nations around the world are tightening their borders to allow time for vaccinating their populations while keeping the variants out. Variants that make the experts nervous are being identified almost daily. New variants have been found in New York, California, the UK, Europe, Denmark, South Africa and Brazil, to name a few. These variants are thought to have played a major role in surges in each of these places. We are finding more and more of these variants in Hawaii.

3. Allowing some visitors to get their tests when they arrive in Hawaii rather than before they board the plane will allow infected people to arrive here potentially sick and contagious and may create super-spreader events. The Safe Travels Program’s single pre-travel test can miss a significant percentage of patients in the early, pre-symptomatic phase of illness.

The weakness built into the Safe Travels Program can be seen by comparing recent experiences on Maui and Kauai.

Kauai had a brief upsurge of cases for the six weeks it was in the Safe Travels Program and then returned to almost no disease after opting out, logging an average of six new cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days.

Maui stayed in the program. Over the past 14 days Maui has had a rate of 220 new cases per 100,000 people — a rate significantly higher than even the county that includes Seattle, King County, which averaged 86 new cases per 100,000 over the past 14 days.

A population specialist with the University of Hawaii has created mathematical models that demonstrate that just a few cases of the UK variant entering Hawaii could lead to a spike in disease similar to last July’s spike in COVID-19.

The bottom line is this:

  • Safe Travels Programs may provide enough of a safety net when disease levels in travelers are low. There is every reason to expect that Kauai will join the Safe Travels Program on April 5. But the single pre-test required by the Safe Travels Program is not enough to keep us safe if disease levels go up and most certainly will not protect us from the variants, particularly if they become widespread.
  • Governor Ige and the mayors should not have their emergency powers weakened or removed. These leaders should be the ones making the decisions regarding borders and other pandemic measures. We know the response to COVID-19 requires speed and flexibility. Legislative bodies by their very nature cannot provide those qualities.
  • Pre-travel tests should be just that. Allowing some of those tests to occur after arrival puts our population at greater risk.

Dr. Lee Evslin wrote this column in partnership with fellow members of the Hawaii Doctors Pandemic Advisory Committee: Dr. Lee Altenberg, Dr. Kapono Chong-Hanssen, Dr. David Derauf, Dr. Jonathan Dworkin, Dr. Karl Kaiyala, Dr. Michael W. Schwartz and Dr. Robert Weiner.

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Latest Comments (0)

Governor Ige just needs to veto it anyway, then it will die the death it deserves

Doug · 2 years ago

The testimony submitted for HB1286 includes the State DOH supporting what Kauai was doing and HIEMA saying the bill is unnecessary. That alone should be enough. But the most important point here is Point #1: Kauai is re-joining the Safe Travels Program, which was really the main target of the Bill. Most baffling is that one of the three Kauai reps was a sponsor for the Bill. The other two voted against it in committee. Know whether your rep is representing your view. 

Aka · 2 years ago

There is an issue of trust between the people and its leadership, that goes far beyond the good-nature of the powers that they currently have over "keeping us safe". Once that is addressed, than you could go ahead and claim that we should not hogtie the leadership in imposing pandemic measures. Simply put, and because of the fact that they have hurt so many people without one-moment of even saying "hey, we are sorry about this", people don't trust the leaders anymore to do anything that is benefitting them. People are seriously hurt by these rulings that the leadership has imposed and they are, concurrently, ceasing any ability for the people to say anything in an official capacity. Fixt the trust first and then lets talk about allowing these rules to be imposed by these leaders. 

Kana_Hawaii · 2 years ago

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