The city is spending up to $10 million to ramp up COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and support services at Oahu’s community health centers ahead of a looming deadline to expend millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid.
The centers — Kalihi- Palama Health Center, Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Serv-ices, Koolauloa Health Center, Wahiawa Health, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, Waikiki Health and Wai-manalo Health Center — have hired so-called navigators to help connect coronavirus patients with financial aid, quarantine and isolation facilities and other wraparound services.
However, those services will stop at year’s end when federal CARES Act money expires, while the pandemic is expected to still be raging.
“We’re hopeful that our Hawaii congressional delegation working with the Congress of the United States will see the wall that we’re heading into,” and extend the deadline for spending the federal money or add more funds for coronavirus relief, said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a news conference Thursday. “Common sense has to prevail. Forget about politics. We all need to come together … otherwise, lives are going to be lost. It’s going to be tragic.”
The city has expended more than $200 million in CARES Act funds and has about $178 million left, “of which it’s all encumbered,” Caldwell said, adding that he is “pushing really hard to get more money out sooner” so that none of it will be returned to the federal government at the end of 2020.
The health centers — considered safety nets for the most vulnerable low-income populations — will provide free COVID-19 testing to “everyone who wants it and needs it” and will start doing their own contact tracing within hard-hit communities like Kalihi Valley, the mayor said.
“The health centers have built a level of trust, a relationship with their communities, and that’s going to make a difference in terms of answering a phone call and talking about who you came into contact with,” Caldwell said. “What’s going to make a difference now is that there’s going to be a health care navigator at these health centers that will help those … who are tested positive … navigate this very challenging thing. I believe that these navigators are going to help hold hands and build bridges to get people the protection and support they need.”
In addition, the navigators will steer households to financial aid for food, rent and other assistance, he said.
“These support services are not just about the patient who tests positive; it’s about their family, it’s about their communities, it’s about their surrounding neighbors and how do we take care of all of them,” Caldwell said. “This new initiative, using a navigator with financial aid, is going to make a tremendous difference.”
Health officials reported 97 new coronavirus infections statewide Thursday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 16,302 cases. Hawaii’s official COVID-19 death toll remains unchanged at 222, though the state has yet to verify the novel coronavirus as a factor in 17 Big Island deaths. Of the state’s total infection count, 1,397 are currently considered active. Meanwhile, U.S. coronavirus fatalities have surpassed 242,000.