After months of ambiguity in public policy to reopen the economy, Gov. David Ige announced a new leadership team Wednesday with the specific focus on restoring the state’s most important economic engine.
In a media briefing at the state Capitol, Ige said he is realigning the oft-criticized public health response to COVID-19 to prioritize protecting public health, reviving the economy and strengthening the community.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency director, will be the liaison connecting federal, state and county resources in his role as incident commander, while Dr. Libby Char, who started on the job Wednesday as the director of the Department of Health, will manage the state’s public health programs. Char replaced Bruce Anderson, who retired Tuesday after weeks of calls for his removal from frustrated community members and lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is recovering from the coronavirus, is taking charge of the state’s thrice-delayed pre-arrival testing program, which is now starting on Oct. 15, as well as Hawaii’s eventual COVID-19 vaccination strategy.
“This new leadership team gives us a stronger operational structure, stronger leadership, and clears the way for stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors,” Ige said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Meanwhile, former DOH director Virginia Pressler is volunteering to lead the Laulima Alliance, which manages a group of public and private sector resources, ensuring a voice in policy making and programs established to respond to the pandemic.
“Together with the progress we’ve made, and continue to make, in the fight against COVID-19, this new leadership team gives us confidence that the time is right to launch our pre-travel COVID-19 testing program, which is an important step toward reviving our economy while continuing to protect public health,” Ige said.
The governor gave few details on Hawaii’s pandemic action plan, but provided bullet points of each strategy.
The first, protecting public health, includes effectively testing, tracing and isolating cases; making sure the health care system is prepared for future surges; developing a vaccination strategy and advocating safety measures, including mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing.
The strategy in reviving the economy includes starting pre-arrival testing and the safe re-openings of businesses, as well as helping residents get new jobs through workforce training programs.
The final priority — strengthening the community — includes distributing federal CARES Act funds; timely and adequate support for the jobless; reducing the loss of housing; and ensuring the safe return of students and teachers to schools.
“This is a critical time in the health of our community,” Char said. “We really need to foster better collaboration between the state, the counties and our private health care partners and work together in order to build a successful network of good health. The state doesn’t have the resources for all of the needs, and so our partners who know their populations well and can sometimes respond more nimbly need to work together with us. I will work to improve the public trust in the Department of Health, understanding that this trust must be earned.”
On Wednesday, health officials reported three new coronavirus deaths — two men and a woman in their 70s with underlying health conditions — and 102 new infections statewide, representing 4% of the 2,492 new tests. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 103 fatalities and 10,946 COVID-19 cases.
Hawaii County Civil Defense reported one more death at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, bringing the total at that facility to 15. Thirteen deaths in Hawaii County have yet to be counted in the state tally pending a verification process, according to state health officials.
The U.S. death toll surpassed 196,000 Wednesday.
There are 6,738 active infections statewide, and a total of 4,105 patients now classified as released from isolation, or about 38% of those infected.
Green reported that there are now 210 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients in Hawaii hospitals, 56 of them in intensive care units and 38 on ventilators. He said that 164, or 67%, of the state’s 244 ICU beds, and 91, or 20%, of Hawaii’s 459 ventilators are in use, by both coronavirus and non-virus patients.
Of the 265,500 coronavirus tests conducted in Hawaii since the start of the outbreak, 4.1% have been positive.
“As the world gets closer to a COVID vaccine … we’re developing a strategy for administering the vaccination to all of our community because it’s going to be a monumental undertaking,” Green said, adding that the vaccine will not be mandatory. “We’re prepared to get the vaccine to people who want it when it becomes available. All of this is going to require the cooperation of everybody. We do need to work together.”