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U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz worries for state with CARES funds ending

                                <strong>“I am alarmed that there does not seem to be a plan yet for how to fully fund the contact tracing program after Dec. 30.”</strong>
                                <strong>Brian Schatz</strong>
                                <em>Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator, writing in a Tuesday letter to Gov. David Ige</em>
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“I am alarmed that there does not seem to be a plan yet for how to fully fund the contact tracing program after Dec. 30.”

Brian Schatz

Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator, writing in a Tuesday letter to Gov. David Ige

Hawaii’s COVID-19 response, including contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, and the upcoming vaccination campaign, is in jeopardy with federal CARES Act money that pays for the programs set to end Dec. 30.

“I am alarmed that there does not seem to be a plan yet for how to fully fund the contact tracing program after Dec. 30,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz wrote in a Tuesday letter to Gov. David Ige. “Now is not the time to let our foot off the pedal — we must do all we can to keep the number of new cases low and protect the health of the residents of Hawaii.”

Schatz questioned whether the state Department of Health plans to maintain the current number of contact tracers beyond year’s end, at a time when health experts are predicting a third wave of infections. He also wanted answers as to how the Health Department has used more than $50 million in federal funds for contact tracing, testing and other COVID-19 measures.

DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said the state is still developing continuity plans, but did not expound on what those might be.

“It’s something that’s under discussion,” she said. “We’re also talking with the city and county about contingency plans and finding alternate funding sources.”

Without additional funding, the Health Department estimates a reduction in the number of isolation and quarantine units that temporarily house COVID-19-positive residents to between 65 and 75 units from about 400, she said.

“We are committed to continuing those wraparound services, but leasing those spaces and those agreements, those are funded by CARES,” Okubo said.

The department did not know how many of the state’s 429 contact tracers would be affected by the loss of federal funds. However, at least 36 National Guardsmen working on contact tracing are set to end their duties at the end of the month, the DOH said.

The DOH will be “transitioning contact tracing as National Guard members plan to demobilize.” The department said it has requested budget funds under review by the administration for contact tracing and other pandemic response for the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years.

CARES Act funds were also used to obtain testing kits and equipment over the last three months, and as a result, the Health Department estimates the state has sufficient testing supplies to last until the end of February.

After that the state will need “another infusion of CARES Act money for a large procurement,” and if the travel pre-testing strategy changes and a greater burden for testing is placed on the state, then additional testing supplies also will be required.

“We share Sen. Schatz’s concerns and hope that he and Hawaii’s Congressional delegation are working to secure additional federal funding so that we can continue the COVID-19 contact tracing program and importantly, distribute the vaccines into our community,” Ige said in a statement. “Every state in the country is up against the same Dec. 30th deadline when … funding will end.”

Health officials reported 44 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 17,968 cases. The most recent statistics reflect new cases reported to the department Sunday, which is typically lower than normal because of decreased weekend testing.

The state’s coronavirus death toll remains at 244 with no new deaths reported. However, officials have yet to verify the novel coronavirus as a factor in 15 Big Island deaths. Of the state’s total infection count, 1,243 cases are considered active.

The U.S. coronavirus death toll was more than 269,000 as the nation recorded over 13.6 million cases.

“Despite the many challenges the pandemic has presented, Hawaii has the lowest coronavirus infection rate per capita of all the states in the U.S.,” Ige said. “While the state has developed plans to continue contact tracing and deploy vaccines after federal funds end on Dec. 30, we implore Sen. Schatz and the delegation to help us secure more federal aid so we can manage the virus and distribute the vaccines to keep our kamaaina safe.”

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