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Honolulu plans to keep 130 COVID-19 contact tracers through June

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the city plans to keep 130 coronavirus contact tracers in place at least through the end of the fiscal year in June, despite the state’s plan to reduce the program.

The mayor, whose term expires at month’s end, also said the city plans to continue to fund isolation and quarantine hotels, which, along with contact tracers, are paid for mostly by federal CARES Act money that expires Dec. 30.

“Our goal is to keep it in place even as this administration comes to an end. It’s our insurance policy should we see another increase in cases. The goal is to put money into the budget that could be used to continue to pay for the contact tracers till June,” he said at a news conference. “We need to hold the course. We should not let our guard down, particularly as we go into the winter and during the holiday season.”

The city also purchased 42,000 tests for a mobile lab run by the National Kidney Foundation that do not expire at the end of the year. Testing can run through at least October, with the potential to be extended even longer because the $125 cost per test is helping to sustain operations, the mayor’s office said.

The mayor is seeking to uphold “all three pillars of the stool” — testing, tracing and isolation — to prevent it from collapsing after the holidays, when health experts project a third wave of infections.

“It can’t happen. This is endangering public health, so we’re going to work for a way to make sure there’s funding there to keep it going.”

Health officials reported 144 new infections statewide Thursday, bringing the totals since the start of the pandemic to 246 fatalities and 18,186 cases. There were two additional Oahu deaths due to COVID-19: a woman in her 80s and a man in his 70s, both of whom had been hospitalized with underlying health conditions.

Of Oahu’s 118 cases, 34 were from the Waiawa Correctional Facility, Caldwell said. The Health Department continues to investigate two ongoing clusters at Waiawa and the Oahu Community Correctional Center, which had 763 total cases combined dating back to August.

As of Nov. 30, 162 of 231 prisoners in Waiawa had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“A lot more could become contagious if we’re not careful. Those who operate our prisons need to be super careful about controlling the virus within a prison. It’s very hard for a prisoner to get infected because they don’t go out … so the virus is coming in through those who work in the prison,” Caldwell said.

The prison outbreaks are particularly concerning because Honolulu’s reopening is based on a tier system driven by Oahu’s positivity rate and case numbers that include prisoners “because unlike the rest of our country, there’s only a limited number of hospitals … so we can tax out our health system.”

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s contact tracers discovered 23 COVID-19 clusters involving food producers, suppliers or distributors between August and November, according to the latest Department of Health cluster report, released Thursday. The outbreaks were attributed to a lack of social distancing during meals, smoke breaks and carpooling in addition to workers not wearing masks while socializing during breaks. The clusters ranged from two to 26 cases.

“The message is loud and clear to everyone on this very small, fragile island of a million people that we need to be very careful going forward into the holiday season. Today’s number is a little bit troubling. It’s a reminder as we go into the next holiday period, which is Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s, that we need to be really careful,” Caldwell said.

The mayor cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report warning that the next few months are expected to be “the most difficult in the history of our nation in terms of public health,” predicting that by February 450,000 Americans could die from COVID-19. On Wednesday, 2,800 people died in a single day across the country, the highest since the pandemic hit.

“Hundreds of people have died in the state of Hawaii. Many have gotten sick, and some of them will be carrying the effects of this virus for the rest of their lives,” Caldwell said. “I think some of the most difficult months are coming now. We are fatigued. We want to get back to being human beings that can hug and hold and love and gather and celebrate together. (But) sacrifice a little more for a better future. Be disciplined and don’t give up, and love each other and your community for the greater good.”

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