The Department of Health says it now has the capacity to offer enough bed space on Oahu to accommodate anyone who has nowhere else to quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19.
“No one is being turned away if they do not have any other kind of alternative to isolate,” said Edward Mersereau, the department’s Behavioral Health and Homelessness Administration deputy director, who heads the COVID-19 isolation and quarantine program.
The program now has an inventory of 293 units at four hotels, the city’s homeless quarantine site in Iwilei and the State Hospital in Kaneohe, and is likely to expand further.
It assists those living in crowded, multigenerational households; first responders; individuals without shelter; and others unable to safely quarantine or isolate while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test or who have tested positive for the virus.
Oahu saw a huge spike of COVID-19 cases in August. The Health Department was criticized for not doing more to provide quarantine and isolation space for many Pacific Islander families and others living in crowded conditions, which officials acknowledged was the cause of some community outbreaks.
The Pearl Hotel Waikiki opened its doors to the media Thursday to provide a look inside one of the four Oahu hotels being used for the program.
Those with behavioral or mental health issues who need a place to quarantine or isolate are assigned to the homeless quarantine site on Kaaahi Street. The State Hospital will be used for those who are sent there by court order.
Those who are homeless and are stable and do not need case management may be housed at one of the hotels.
Out-of-state visitors are not eligible to participate in the free program.
The 130-room Pearl Hotel is the only hotel leased by the city for this purpose. The cost is $397,000 a month for the entire property through Dec. 30. That works out to an average of $84 a night for a room before taxes. When tourism was up and running, standard room rates were $125 to $350 for suites.
On Tuesday, 66 rooms were occupied by 118 people, 44 were being cleaned and 20 rooms were vacant.
To pay for its portion of the program, the city is dipping into the $387 million in federal CARES Act relief funding it has received, which expires at the end of the year, said Sandy Pfund, director of land management.
Pfund would not say how much the city administration has allocated for the program, but that Mayor Kirk Caldwell is willing to exceed that amount if needed.
Pfund said the city is looking at other properties with similar features to the Pearl Hotel, which has lanai and open-air walkways, and is reasonably priced.
She praised the hotel’s management for being one of the first to contract with the city and for its willingness to help.
The Pearl Hotel has brought back 25 of its 45 employees for the program, said Kelly Sanders, vice president of High Gate Hawaii, owner and manager of the property. He called it “a win-win” for the hotel.
Without visitors the hotel was losing $500,000 a month. Sanders said the company initially was reluctant to openly discuss its participation in the program because of the stigma of COVID-19 but ended up being one of the first hotels to get on board.
Sanders, a Hawaii Tourism Authority board member, said he wanted to tell the real story of serving the critical needs of parents and grandparents. He said it’s not about the financial aspect of the city contract, since $100,000 of the amount will go to pay taxes, but about helping the community.
Addressing potential public concerns, Mersereau said, “I understand the fears and concerns that neighbors have. We have taken all the precautions.”
Part of the reason the Health Department has maintained confidentiality about the quarantine sites is the stigma around COVID-19, but the locations were leaked to the media anyway, he said.
“We need to do a better job of explaining to the public,” Mersereau said, calling the Pearl Hotel “the heroes in the story.”
The Health Department has partnered with the city in the program. Department personnel, volunteers and outside contractors provide three meals, snacks and services including wellness, temperature and other health checks.
Those quarantining are first picked up in vans, individually or as families if they are isolating together, and taken to the hotel. Family groups may isolate together in a suite, depending upon size and circumstances.
Hotel staff do not attend to the quarantine/isolation guests.
Once guests check out, hotel staff perform 72 hours of cleaning and sanitizing in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines before new guests are admitted.
The Health Department had been criticized for using portions of three hotels that were otherwise occupied by guests not quarantining or in isolation.
Mersereau, who assumed leadership of the program Aug. 12 from DOH’s Disaster Preparedness Division, said the practice of using only a portion of a hotel as a quarantine site ended when he took over, and now all three of those first properties are being used solely as quarantine sites.
The Health Department had begun in April to secure hotel rooms, and had 70 or so units before quickly ramping up to 293 by Aug. 20 with the addition of the Pearl Hotel.
Mersereau said reports of quarantined guests mingling at hotel bars were erroneous, since those who were quarantined or isolated were not allowed to be in those areas.
The Health Department did not identify the other three hotels.
The Equus, also in Waikiki, was previously identified by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser as a site by someone quarantining there in July while the hotel also had paying guests.
The Health Department’s Hawaii CARES line (832-3100) has been receiving 350 calls daily since Aug. 12 and has placed 300 people in quarantine/isolation sites and provided in-home services to 700 others.
DOH screens out people who can isolate or quarantine at home.
Mersereau said the department is now turning its attention to support programs on the neighbor islands.