Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is making a last push to continue critical COVID-19 programs, reallocating $7 million for testing, contact tracing and isolation for the next six months.
In his final coronavirus response effort, the mayor is diverting money that was supposed to go into a “rainy day” fiscal stability fund at the end of the year to continue what he calls “three legs of a stool” that has kept cases from surging out of control on Oahu since the pandemic started in March.
“We’re going to continue to have to fight and deal with this pandemic after we’re gone,” said Caldwell, whose term ends Jan. 2. It is unclear if Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi will buy into Caldwell’s plan, but federal CARES Act money used to run the programs expires at year’s end.
“If we allowed it … CARES money is running out at the end of year, those three legs of the stool collapse and there’s no protocols in place,” Calwell said.
To that end, the city has budgeted $25,000 per month, or a total of $150,000 over six months, to conduct up to 284 tests per day at a laboratory established at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine. The city has funded another 41,000 tests at the lab, in addition to seven community health centers that will continue testing and contact tracing of their own through June. The city’s mobile lab also pre-purchased 42,000 tests and will continue to operate next year because the $125 per test it charges is helping to sustain operations, the mayor said.
In addition, the city plans to spend $70,400 per month, or $422,000 through the end of the fiscal year on June 30, on tracing those who have been exposed to COVID-19. The city is currently using federal funds to pay for 130 contact tracers but will reduce the workforce to between 80 and 100 next year.
An estimated $639,000 per month, or $3.8 million in the first half of 2021, will go toward quarantine and isolation units at the Pearl Hotel Waikiki. The city will not continue funding quarantine rooms at the Park Shore Waikiki because the state Health Department said it’s not needed at this time, Caldwell told reporters at a news conference Thursday. Another quarantine facility, the Harbor Arms Hotel in Aiea, will continue to be used for isolation as necessary, he said. The city purchased the property in September as low-income affordable rental units but designated the building for isolation and quarantine during the pandemic.
Finally, $154,000 per month, or $924,000 over six months, will be used for the Office of Economic Revitalization to help “get the economy back on its feet.”
The city also has budgeted for cleaning and sanitizing services for its departments, bringing the total allocation amount to $5.6 million. Any remaining funds could be used to help with vaccination efforts or other functions that arise.
“Given that we’re in … the first ever pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918, we believe it’s more important at this point to protect our health and safety. We’ve got to help keep these programs going,” Caldwell said. “We’re one week away from Christmas Eve. It’s troubling that we see triple-digit figures on the island of Oahu. We don’t wan’t to lose more loved ones. We don’t want to overwhelm our hospitals and we don’t want to expose more of our community to COVID.”
Hawaii health officials reported two new coronavirus deaths — a man in his 40s and the other in his 50s on Oahu, both with underlying medical conditions — and 142 new infections statewide, bringing the totals since the start of the pandemic to 280 deaths and 19,731 cases.
The state also released its latest COVID-19 cluster report, which “highlights the dangers of even small social gatherings and the risk of taking off masks while eating and drinking,” a Department of Health spokesman said.
The DOH found a case in which four people attended a barbecue while one of them was asymptomatic but passed the virus on to attendees who then infected 18 others. In another scenario, all seven people at a birthday party contracted the coronavirus after removing their masks to eat and drink. The department also said transmission occurred after four teenagers, three of whom got infected, piled into a car without wearing masks.