The agency in charge of investigating insect-borne diseases like the Zika virus and dengue fever could lose funding for critical positions in the coming years.

The Hawaii Department of Health is proposing to cut funding for seven vector control workers across the state as part of an effort to reduce costs in light of the economic downturn that has left the state with significantly less money to spend in the next several years.

The vector control team was gutted in 2009 during the recession, and a lack of funding, as well as slow hiring, put Hawaii in harm’s way for a multitude of diseases.

DOH Environmental Health Specialist Geoffrey Lau applies larvacide to standing water in bromelliads with Stanley Yu at the King Kamehameha Hotel. Kailua Kona Hawaii. Dengue prevention.
The state team in charge of investigating diseases is having some of its funding yanked again. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

DOH says that could happen again.

“The immediate loss of the Vector Control Worker positions will jeopardize the health and safety of the public as the remaining staff will not be able to implement timely abatement strategies to properly manage vectors such as mosquitoes and rodents,” the DOH wrote in testimony to lawmakers Tuesday.

One of those seven positions on the chopping block is an entomologist on Maui, tasked with studying insects that might spread disease. The loss of that position would be detrimental, according to the DOH, because of the input the entomologist provides to other vector workers.

The vector control workers would be among dozens that are cut if the current budget makes it through the Legislature in the coming months and is approved by the governor. It would take effect July 1.

The DOH is also proposing to permanently cut two other vector control positions that are vacant and were not funded by the Legislature in the 2020 session. And the department plans to save $96,000 next fiscal year after a vector control inspector retires.

All told, the cuts to the vector control team are projected to save the department more than $266,000 in 2022 and $341,000 in 2023.

Those are part of about $13 million worth of cuts the DOH is making to its budget, which is expected to total about $482.3 million in 2022.

At a budget hearing Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Lorraine Inouye asked department heads why federal relief funds couldn’t be used to help pay for the vector control positions, or if the vector control workers could perform other duties for the department.

“With everything happening in regards to health, I would think you could use vector control for more than what responsibilities are in your descriptions,” Inouye said.

DOH Deputy Director Cathy Ross said some vector workers did assist with the state’s pandemic response but such funds couldn’t be used to cover the vector workers’ salaries.

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