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House COVID-19 committee wants better data from Hawaii health officials

Members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 today voiced their frustrations wiith the state Health Department’s response to the pandemic and asked for more specific data to make clearer recommendations on what activities should be restricted.

The committee fell short of recommending an all-out shut down to control the latest surge of cases — especially on Oahu — with members saying they need more specific data from the Health Department.

“One of the challenges is as fundamental as what it is we’re supposed to be doing … and the consequences of not doing it,” said committee co-chairman Peter Ho, who is also chairman, president and CEO of Bank of Hawaii.

“From where we were early on in the pandemic to becoming one of the best stories in the country infection wise to where we are now is not a pretty story,” Ho said. “We have to learn from our mistakes to figure out how to get better.”

Committee member Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of HMSA, said there is no useful data on whether clusters are a result of house parties, weddings or bars, for example.

At the same time, Mugiishi appreciated the limits of so-called contact tracing and suggested that HMSA’s recent experience with a cluster of COVID-19 cases might be a reason for another shut down on the overall economy and activities.

Out of 1,900 employees HMSA saw its first positive COVID-19 test last week. The number then mushroomed from three to 10 employees who work on the same floor and now has spread to 35 employees, Mugiishi said.

Other than the first group of employees who work on the same floor, contact tracing found no other obvious overlap, Mugiishi said.

“They were on the same floor but didn’t cross paths or sit together,” he said.

As the number of cases grew, HMSA ended up closing the entire building.

Now HMSA hopes to “flatten the curve by sending everyone home,” Mugiishi said. “… It’s just better to separate.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki, who co-chairs the House COVID-19 committee, said he asked the Health Department for more specific data and received a reply saying Health officials will try to comply.

The Health Department did not immediately respond to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser today about its correspondence with Saiki, how much more specific information it plans to provide and when.

Members of the committee repeatedly linked Hawaii’s latest surge with frustrations and inability to re-start the economy.

“The virus is the economy,” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and a member of the House committee. “… The public health side of this is what drives the economy.”

Bonham joined other committee members in saying that the public needs specific recommendations on how to curb COVID-19 cases.

But in general, Bonham said, “If you want to to go the beach park and have your party, don’t expect to find a job when you come home or expect your auntie to have work or your cousin or whatever, but that’s what’s driving it.”

Saiki suggested that the House committee take on a more “oversight role” in responding to the pandemic.

And some neighbor island members of the committee said they hoped there can be neighbor island exceptions to help their local economies.

Wendy Laros, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, wondered why neighbor island residents can’t bypass Oahu and travel to neighbor islands, to stimulate each other’s economies.

“Why can’t we fly from here to Maui or here to Kauai and from Kauai to here?” Laros asked. “I hope that gets considered. … What’s going on on Oahu is really affecting all of us.”

Ho and others said there is much more to be done to get on top of the latest surge in cases and give clearer guidelines to stop the spread and to re-start Hawaii’s economy.

Otherwise the long-term effects could be disastrous, Ho suggested.

“If we’re one of the community’s that’s having a difficult time getting ourselves back under control, that’s going to prevent us from getting our economy going again,” Ho said. “And capital and people are highly portable and so we will lose capital in the form of small businesses shuttering. We’ll lose people who simply — despite the fact that they love the islands as much as we all do — will not be able to afford living here and will end up in places that have gotten a better control of the virus than we have. “

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