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Editorial: A new COVID team

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Exactly six months ago, Oahu was shutting down — drastically and unthinkably — for the first time, abruptly halting business and life as usual. The neighbor islands, too, were on the cusp of dramatic measures to combat the emergent and deadly coronavirus.

Today, Oahu is in an extended second lockdown — after the first one succeeded then failed due to complacency — with more modifications expected next week. Meanwhile, a major reset in state leadership and policy came this week, prompted by a roller coaster of early success and, unfortunately, lapse in critical leadership.

The state’s reboot brings with it needed fresh perspectives and additional skill sets. Gov. David Ige reshuffled his go-to COVID team: Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency director, reemerged as COVID incident commander, the liaison linking federal, state and county resources; Dr. Libby Char, who started Wednesday as state Department of Health (DOH) director, replacing the beleaguered and now-retired Bruce Anderson; Lt. Gov. Josh Green, recovering from the coronavirus, in charge of the state’s pre-travel testing program set for Oct. 15; plus Virginia Pressler, former DOH director who is volunteering to lead the Laulima Alliance, a group of public and private sector resources.

Add to this crucial reset a new state Labor Director, Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, whom Ige appointed this week after former Director Scott Murakami resigned under the weight of unemployment claims that peaked at a staggering quarter-million. As acting director, Perreira-Eustaquio has shown calm and competence; hopefully, that bodes well for the many jobless applicants who have yet to receive their first benefit checks since March. The Labor Department must make these claimants a priority; they have been frustrated for too long over this half-year.

For the sake of Hawaii’s suffering residents and businesses, Ige’s leadership changes must bring more than just shuffling of the deck chairs; they must also result in improved responsiveness, efficiency and results for people in need.

Opaqueness, vagueness and sluggishness must be things of the past. The state Human Resources Department, for instance, had failed earlier to move quickly to redeploy idle state workers, when workers were urgently needed by Murakami’s unemployment office to process the deluge of claims. In an ongoing pandemic, such passivity can’t be accepted as business as usual.

After six rocky months of fighting COVID-19, Ige needs to flatten departmental silos, to enable essential and timely cross-departmental actions to meet the public’s needs.

Autumn is coming — and so are the trans-Pacific tourists, starting Oct. 15. Hawaii must use the next few weeks to prepare wisely for that, and all citizens should realize by now that the good hygiene habits we’ve adopted the last six months must continue for the next six, and beyond. Do not let our guard down. Too much is at stake.

Assessing surge testing

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Hawaii, one cause for concern has been the lack of adequate testing to determine how much and where the coronavirus has spread in our communities.

Many medical experts, like Dr. Scott Miscovich and Lt. Gov. Josh Green, have been persistent in their calls for widespread tests among both the symptomatic and asymptomatic. The recent surge of new daily coronavirus cases, sometimes topping 300, amplified the call.

Then, like manna from heaven, the federal government dropped about 90,000 tests on Oahu’s coronavirus desert. The so-called surge testing program, with more than 60,000 tests administered over nearly three weeks earlier this month, had several attractive features: They were easier to take (no deep dive with a nasal swab), they were self-administered (no need for a massive increase in PPEs and health workers), they were easy to get (anyone who wanted one could get one), and perhaps best of all, they were free.

But were they useful? Well, that depends on your perspective. The positivity rate for the surge tests was below 1%, an encouraging sign that perhaps the virus isn’t diffused throughout the island. But the low rate also reflects the likelihood that many people who took the test did not have symptoms or were not connected to known cases — the “worried well,” or the simply curious.

Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of the Hawaii Medical Service Association, said that with the surge tests removed from the equation, he would calculate the positivity rate statewide at roughly 6% — a more worrisome figure.

Two things seem clear.

First, public policy decisions can’t be based primarily on the surge test results. They will have to be more conservative. Second, more testing is necessary and useful. The 30,000 remaining surge tests will be used in a more targeted way, in high-risk communities, according to Mayor Kirk Caldwell. That’s a good next step.

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