The Hawaii National Guard is staying on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19 until the end of the year as the highly contagious delta variant causes a surge in cases in the islands. It’s a reversal after Hawaii officials announced in June that the mission would wind down and likely end in September.
The current task force is made up of about 550 soldiers and airmen after several troops began demobilizing as Hawaii leaders loosened travel restrictions during several months of relatively low case counts. It’s not clear yet whether the guard will attempt to call more troops back up amid surging cases.
“Based on the current rise in Covid-19 infections, the Hawaii National Guard Leadership assessed that we would likely need to continue our support to the Counties and State of Hawaii in their efforts to mitigate Covid-19,” Brig. Gen. Moses Kaoiwi, the task force’s commander, said Tuesday in a press release.
The mission was extended until the end of December.
Federal funds for the deployment were set to expire in September, but Gov. David Ige asked President Joe Biden to extend funding through December, the press release said.
“The federal government is paying for it, so that’s good news for the state, and it just continues to keep us available to the governor and the mayors,” Col. Amy Arfman, deputy commander of the task force, said in a phone interview.
Guardsmen on the task force have bolstered the efforts of the Hawaii Department of Health and other agencies throughout the pandemic.
Troops have continued doing thermal screenings at airports along with rapid swab tests and vaccination efforts, working on Covid-19 mapping and contact tracing, conducting public health outreach for at-risk communities and helping distribute personal protective equipment, Afrman said.
“We are also postured to assist the state and city and county in any way within our abilities that they request,” said Arfman. “So right now the leaders are working really hard to make sure they’re utilizing all the resources they have available to them in the best possible way to help the people of Hawaii.”
Hawaii health officials reported 565 new cases on Tuesday for a total of 57,235. Those included 370 on Oahu, 100 on the Big Island, 70 on Maui, 17 on Kauai and eight residents diagnosed out of state. There also was one new coronavirus-related death, raising the total to 565.
Most cases in Hawaii are attributed to the delta variant, a mutation of the virus that spreads faster and infects more children who were far less impacted by previous strains.
Arfman said that neither military nor civilian officials are sure how the guard’s operations may shift or change to address the more aggressive nature of the variant.
“We’re in constant conversation to analyze those sorts of things, looking at statistics and science, to make sure that we are adjusting as appropriate,” said Arfman. “As far as the specifics for that, I think the leaders of the state and the community are still working through that.”
The extension of the mission comes as the National Guard has been stretched thin across the country. Guardsmen have also continued to perform other missions such as responding to natural disasters and deploying to conflict zones around the world.
Most recently Hawaii Guardsmen have participated in battling wildfires on the Big Island.
After the inauguration, several of the Guardsmen tested positive for COVID-19 upon returning to Hawaii. This week the Pentagon announced that with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine, inoculation against Covid-19 will now be mandatory for military service members.
Kevin Knodell reports on the military and veterans for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.