Highlights of Hawai‘i State Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 meeting of Thursday, April 30
Representatives from the Department of Transportation and the Hawaii Tourism Authority provided the committee with updates on traveler quarantine procedures.
Within the past two weeks of the DOT Airports Division’s enhanced verification process – which has only begun since Tuesday for neighbor island airports -- 27 visitors were forced to leave the state for quarantine violations or lacking proper lodging and 330 arrivals have been referred to law enforcement. The HTA has made over 14,000 follow-up calls so far.
Per the Special Committee’s request, in regards to passenger processing, the department has replaced 24 of the 40 statewide contract workers with redeployed state workers. The DOT explained that they are continuing to transition out contract workers for this purpose, but did not indicated when this would be completed.
The committee also requested that the DOT and HTA flag arrivals that have reservations for less than 14 days to be sure they have left Hawai‘i.
Although the process includes calling hotels directly for a visitor’s reservations and compliance, the Airports Division does not call residential addresses, including legal or illegal vacation rentals, to verify the arriving passenger will be staying at the address.
The committee requested a copy of DOT’s enhanced verification procedures. It also requested that calls be made to residential addresses to verify if, and for how long, the visitors will be staying there. Furthermore, the committee asked that the DOT consider visiting those addresses to be sure the visitors are quarantining.
Both DOT and HTA recognize that the enhanced verification system’s current capacity and processes would not be effective if arrivals increase over current levels. The Special Committee insisted that the DOT develop a plan on how the system could ramp up when the travel industry reopens.
HTA CEO Chris Tatum reported that letters have been sent to airlines and online travel portals requesting that their respective websites provide more information on the travel quarantine before potential visitors decide to book flights. Delta Airlines, Expedia, and one other business have responded to the letters, and Tatum said HTA will follow-up with others again.
On airport surveillance, the Department of Health said that international air carriers are required to report if they suspect a passenger may have flu-like symptoms. If so, airport medical personnel examine the passenger in question, and if the symptoms are confirmed, they contact DOH. The department then tests, with the passenger’s consent, for the illness and then tracks that disease.
Director Dr. Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park also reported that while antibody testing is not yet part of the State’s program, it may be added if a reliable test for COVID-19 is created. Antibody testing would show who was exposed to the disease and how widely the virus spread.
When it comes to the Governor’s proclamation of a 14-day quarantine, Dr. Park state that, from her perspective, the state should maintain it for as long as possible. Dr. Anderson added that “from a public health perspective, the 14-day quarantine has been extraordinarily effective, but there is some concern with non-compliance.”
The committee questioned the State’s ability to maintain enforcement as the number of visitors continue to increase. Members insisted that it be made clear at all levels of government that the quarantine will be in place for the near-future, and that plans must be made now to ensure that it can be managed and enforced as visitor numbers increase.
When the Special Committee expressed its concern with the Governor’s proclamation requiring a 14-day quarantine, but not a 14-day hotel reservation, Dr. Anderson responded by saying “I would want to make sure that the person has a place to stay for the 14 days,” later adding “who knows what is going to happen after five days. I wouldn’t want to trust that they’re going to renew their hotel room.”
The committee asked that the DOH take an active role in advising the Governor on future proclamations and to discuss the inconsistencies of current one. Dr. Anderson indicated that he would do so.
Dr. Mark Mugiishi of the Hawaii COVID-19 Public Health Recovery Taskforce reported that the taskforce is a voluntary public and private coalition that is developing a plan of best practices for re-opening the state. The coalition includes leaders from state agencies, businesses, healthcare systems and more.
The taskforce’s plan is to provide a tiered approach based on COVID-19 risks to public health and our state’s preparedness to address possible surges of the virus. Risk levels are determined by factors such as the rate of transmission and number of active cases. Preparation includes available testing, contact tracing, and healthcare capacity.
Mugiishi said the taskforce expects to finalize plans by the end of next week and present it to the Governor. It hopes to coordinate with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency in developing strategies for relaxing social distancing that is based on best practices from other states and countries. The taskforce recommends reopening the travel industry when Hawaii’s health risk is at Alert Level 1 or when COVID-19 is contained, and the state is capable of quickly addressing any surges in infection.
Phyllis Unebasami, Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Education, also reported to the Special Committee on Thursday.
The department announced last week that schools would be providing alternative graduation ceremonies due to the pandemic. Plans were announced Thursday that while all ceremonies will be virtual, they will be individualized by the school, with arrangements made by the school and students.
Some schools have opted for online graduation speakers, live or pre-recorded. All will allow online access by students and families, and will read the graduates’ names out loud. Some schools may do drive-thru diploma pickups.
Per the committee’s request, the department will consider whether to allow at a future date for the traditional “cap toss” part of the traditional ceremony to take place.
As for the topic of distance learning, Unebasami said schools have websites with COVID-19 information, including learning activities and scheduled times for teachers to engage with students online. Schools have set up equipment distribution for those students who do not have access to distance learning equipment such as tablets and laptops. Learning packets for students are being distributed by email, through websites, and in person at grab-and-go meal sites.
Any school-age child requesting a learning packet while at a meal site is provided one, no questions asked.
For vulnerable students, schools and teachers have made numerous attempts to ensure learning packet distribution, including personal delivery by teachers. The DOE is exploring the possibility of creation learning hubs for such students. These learning hubs may be housed in buses that would include school supplies and connectivity for distance learning.
Per the committee’s request, the department will offer programs and opportunities to reach students with whom schools have not been able to connect with during the school closure period. The committee also requests that it be provided the budgetary needs of the grab-and-go meal program and the plans to keep it fully operational.