Along with the spacious suite of offices in Honolulu’s Prince Kuhio Federal Building, Hawaii’s Sen. Brian Schatz inherited the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s rank as Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator.
Inouye as senior senator assumed that it was his right and duty to poke his nose into all things Hawaii. There was no Democratic gathering that Inouye didn’t think he couldn’t make better with a little guidance, no political career that should be left without his steering, and certainly no political deal was complete without his touch.
Schatz, however, has appeared content to take a broad overview, keep his dealmaking to the Senate floor and leave his local political guidance to benign bromides about “Hawaii as a family.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis appears to have raised his local political antenna and he’s on the case.
In an interview with Civil Beat in late August, Schatz reviewed Hawaii’s response, calling it “objectively terrible.”
Schatz said the state’s lackluster efforts at contact tracing as “our failure” and was “inexcusable, especially since they told me and other leaders that they had it under control.”
Repeatedly Schatz looked to state leadership, starting with Gov. David Ige, and found it either missing or lacking follow-through.
Schatz was worried about local care and elderly home operations relating to COVID back in May, warning the state to “dramatically expand testing, to continue to protect these vulnerable residents and the workers of these facilities.”
Instead of that happening, a staggering health crisis broke out at the Big Island’s Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, with 15 deaths and 68 residents testing positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday.
While the care home festered, Schatz was forced to call for federal emergency teams to help. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that Schatz has also urged Avalon Health Care to “review and improve its infection control practices at all three of its nursing homes in Hawaii, including at Avalon Care Center and Hale Nani Rehabilitation &Nursing Center in Honolulu, where there have also been outbreaks.”
In a letter requesting help, Schatz said: “It is increasingly clear to me that the state home (in Hilo) is understaffed and ill-equipped to stop this outbreak on its own. Moreover, I am concerned that the state and county have been too slow to respond to the crisis with the urgency that it demands, including with a request for more federal assistance.”
Unlike politicians who limited their complaints about the Hilo center to chest thumping, Schatz added enough umph to stir the federal Veterans Affairs monolith, which was to send out a so-called “tiger team” of 24 health care experts to take control of the facility’s COVID operation.
Schatz’s action comes after both the county and the state said they were acting to help the hospital, but the number of infections and deaths continued to climb.
In Hawaii’s history, federal intervention has often proven to be the only force that works to resolve problems.
If Brian Schatz is now learning how to use those federal tools and has the interest in doing so, it will open a new era in federal leadership.
Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays. Reach him at email@example.com.