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Honolulu is taking steps to keep the COVID-19 case count low

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                                Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell talks during a press conference on Tuesday at Honolulu Hale.


    Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell talks during a press conference on Tuesday at Honolulu Hale.

Oahu’s second attempt at reopening the kamaaina economy will come with greater vigilance on community health, with additional testing and an increased number of COVID-19 contact tracers and isolation hotels established by the city.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said this time around the city has built testing capacity, signing contracts with seven community health centers to do more testing and funding a laboratory at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine slated to come online in early October.

The mayor said Tuesday at a news conference that he also is supporting additional surge testing and has contracted with a market research call center with 80 employees that will be trained and ready to start contact tracing work. He is preparing to bring on another 30 at a second call center, with a goal of hiring 250 contact tracers on Oahu to supplement those at the state Department of Health, which has been blamed for failing to build a robust tracing program.

In addition, the city has spent part of its federal CARES Act money to secure a Waikiki hotel and acquire another hotel property in Aiea for quarantine and isolation of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases. It is also negotiating another hotel property, he said.

“This is what is different than the first time that we opened up. Plus, we have learned a lot. More than ever, we’re wearing face coverings. Physical distancing is being practiced and hand washing is being done,” Caldwell said. “We’ve really brought the number of cases from a high of 350 in August down to 60-something. We could not have done this without all of you cooperating.”

The City and County of Honolulu purchased the Harbor Arms Hotel in Aiea on Sept. 18 for $10.5 million to be used as low-income affordable rental units, but will repurpose the 30-unit, three-story building as isolation/quarantine rooms during the pandemic. The units are fully furnished and immediately available for occupancy, the city said.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, this property is ideal for multi-­generational families who need to isolate or quarantine,” Caldwell said in a news release. “We need to protect our vulnerable populations during this pandemic, especially those who may not have access to a safe place to stay if and when they are exposed to COVID-19.”

Health officials reported 63 new coronavirus infections statewide Tuesday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 11,522 cases. The new cases represent 4.2% of the 1,489 total tested. It is the third day in a row that the statewide count fell below 100. Officials reported 56 new cases Monday and 77 on Sunday.

The official statewide death toll again remained unchanged at 120, but is expected to climb significantly since the Health Department has not yet verified the cause of death in most of the reported fatalities at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo. The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency reported an additional death at the veterans home Tuesday, raising the facility’s death toll to 25.

There are 6,410 active infections statewide, and 4,992 patients now classified as released from isolation, or nearly 43% of those infected. The U.S. death toll surpassed 200,000 — the highest confirmed number of coronavirus fatalities in the world, according to Johns Hopkins.

The city is also preparing for the opening of Oahu’s public schools in early October, followed by the Oct. 15 start date of a pre-arrival COVID-19 testing program to restore the dried-up tourism industry.

“As we open up, we know that there could be an increase in the number of cases, so what we do makes all the difference,” Caldwell said. “The better we are at not letting down our guard, the better we are at assuming everyone has COVID-19 … as we open up we can make a difference and manage the caseload and continue to live in a more opened economy. What we do as an island determines whether we go forward or whether we go backward. We all have a role to play here.”

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