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Hawaii Senate COVID-19 members irritated by lack of oversight

Members of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 got into testy exchanges with state officials on Wednesday over a wide range of issues, including who’s responsible for monitoring safe hygiene practices in state workplaces, confusion over the state’s color-coded COVID-19 threat levels and a perceived disconnect that stockpiles of personal protective equipment are not getting into the hands of teachers.

The hearing heated up early when Ryker Wada, director of the state Department of Human Resources Development, said that an unspecified number of state employees who were working from home were not actually working — but said his department is not responsible for oversight.

“We’ve heard anecdotal reports that when the pandemic first happened there were employees who were allowed to telework and then were not actually doing their work,” Wada said. “And if that’s the case, it’s 100% a department’s prerogative to make sure the work is getting done.”

That led to a series of questions — and frustrations on the part of members of the Senate COVID-19 committee — who repeatedly asked who is responsible for ensuring that Gov. David Ige’s COVID-19-orders are followed in state workplaces.

State Sen. Donna Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Moanalua- Halawa) also said that members of the committee saw state workers at the Health Department not practicing social distancing or wearing masks.

Kim asked who’s responsible for ensuring uniform safe practices in state workplaces in the face of potential lawsuits, including over who is — and is not — allowed to work from home.

“We saw a good example when we went to DOH — that they’re stuck in these cubbyholes that are not 6 feet apart,” Kim said. “We’ve got two people in one cubbyhole sitting right next to each other.”

Wada said it’s not his office’s responsibility, but rather up to the state Department of Accounting and General Services, which owns state buildings, and the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division.

“That is not something that falls into the purview of DHRD,” Wada said.

State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, responded: “It’s almost as though it’s just chaos — that every department is kind of left to their own. There’s no consistency. … Somebody’s got to be in charge of it.”

Later, Dela Cruz and other committee members got into tense exchanges with state Attorney General Clare Connors, who was not even scheduled to testify and surprised the committee with her virtual appearance.

Connors said that Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, incident commander of Hawaii’s COVID-19 response, had reviewed her department for workplace hygiene practices, leading senators to argue that Hara had not said that earlier in his own testimony.

Dela Cruz said that Hara only said he had reviewed his own department, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. Dela Cruz repeatedly tried to pin down Connors as to whether it was her belief that Hara was responsible for oversight of all state departments.

“You’re saying on the record it’s not up to Ryker (Wada, head of Human Resources), it’s up to Hara?” Dela Cruz asked.

Connors replied: “I heard your questions. We all heard your questions.”

Asked again by Dela Cruz whether Hara had actually only said that he had reviewed his own department, Connors said: “You’ve asked that question three times and I can answer it again, yes.”

Kim jumped in and said, “Attorney General, the thing is that Gen. Hara didn’t share any of that with us. He said he was only doing it for his department. He didn’t volunteer that he did it for any other department.”

Dela Cruz then quickly added, “I think she’s making it up.”

When Connors repeated that her office will work with other agencies, Dela Cruz interjected: “We heard you three times.”

During Hara’s testimony earlier in the day, senators were confused about the color-coded chart that’s supposed to let the public know how to behave during various COVID-19 risk levels.

“There’s still some angst about how it seems piecemeal,” Dela Cruz told Hara.

State Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, (D, Kakaako-McCully- Waikiki) told Hara that there is still confusion over new orders issued by Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell this week.

Clearer information about the color-coded risk levels will help people “know what they can do or not do,” Moriwaki said. “People are still asking questions: What does that mean? It seems arbitrary.”

Hara said HI-EMA is working on a “new product.”

“As soon as we lock it in, we’ll get it to you,” he told the committee.

For now, he said, the latest “safer at home order” means the state is now in yellow status.

The new information, he said, will be “public facing that’s easy to understand because they (the public) don’t need to know all the science.”

Schools superintendent Christina Kishimoto then riled up members of the Senate COVID-19 committee by saying the Department of Education had a three-month supply of personal protective equipment but could not precisely describe how much was to be allocated to individual DOE members — or when.

Various senators told Kishi­moto that DOE employees were buying their own equipment or requesting monetary help from their communities.

Kishimoto said the DOE was not prepared to warehouse and distribute 50,000 face shields and “gallons and gallons of soap” and was relying on HI-EMA to deliver the goods to 15 area complexes.

Sen. Kurt Fevella, (R, Ewa Beach, Iroquois Point), who worked as a DOE custodian, said that Kishimoto was “throwing out big numbers … but it’s not there. … Teachers are doing their own purchasing and reaching out to the community.”

“The schools in my district, none of them have enough,” Fevella said. “None of them have enough.”

Asked how the DOE is letting individual employees know how much and what kind of equipment to expect, Kishimoto said that DOE “communications (are) something that’s ever changing, ever improving.”

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