In a reflection of the city’s handling of its COVID-19 outbreak, outgoing Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he would have responded to the virus earlier and done more to properly inform the public if he had the chance.
With just a few days left in office, Caldwell on Tuesday held what he said would be his last news conference at Honolulu Hale to discuss the city budget and provide a regular update on COVID-19.
During the conference he said he didn’t have any regrets about the city’s overall handling of the coronavirus, but discussed few improvements he and other local administrations could have made.
“I wish I would’ve listened to my gut and taken action earlier,” he said. “I would have fought harder for testing. I would have fought harder for contact tracing and isolation earlier. We had to go through a second spike to really get a handle on this, when we could have maybe avoided this if we had more in place early on.”
He also said the counties’ and the state’s public message about the virus was “chop suey” at times, adding that more coherent information would have led to a better-informed public. He said it’s gotten better but still could be improved.
He urged the public to stay diligent as a more contagious variant of the coronavirus has made its way to Colorado from the United Kingdom.
Still, Caldwell said Oahu is “one of the best places” in the country when it comes to total COVID-19 cases and positivity rate.
Hawaii health officials Tuesday reported 76 new coronavirus infections, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 21,103 cases. The new infections include 56 on Oahu, nine on Maui, seven on the Big Island and four residents diagnosed outside of Hawaii, officials said. As a result of updated information, one Oahu case was removed from the counts.
It also reported no new deaths, which stands at 285 for Hawaii. Of the total coronavirus deaths, 221 were on Oahu, 44 on Hawaii island, 17 on Maui, one on Kauai and two Hawaii residents who died on the mainland.
“We got it right, but we had to learn the hard lesson more than once,” Caldwell said, referring in part to a spike in cases that started in late July after the city reopened.
Caldwell, in the conference, stood by some moves that have drawn criticism, including Oahu’s tiered reopening strategy and the CARES Act funding provided to the Honolulu Police Department.
He has no regrets about what was spent on HPD to enforce COVID-19 emergency rules, saying people were “out of control” when it came to following restrictions on gatherings and social distancing after the city reopened in July.
“Enforcement is a critical component of how you fight this virus. You can make rules and regulations, but if there is no one out there to enforce them, will they be complied and followed?” Caldwell said.
In September, Honolulu City Council member Tommy Waters questioned the city’s priorities after reviewing CARES Act allocations. In November, HPD suspended its federally funded COVID enforcement teams after apparent abuse of overtime.
The mayor said about $63 million in federal aid was provided to HPD, but the department has spent only about $21 million.
Caldwell said he hopes Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi keeps the tiered opening strategy once he takes office.
“We believe our tier system is working, and people understand it,” he said. “When (Blangiardi) becomes mayor … he can submit an order to amend the tier system or do away with the tier system — it’s really up to him.”
Restaurant and bar owners have had mixed reactions about the strategy, and parents, coaches and kids have asked the city to make outdoor sports less restrictive than they currently are.
Tuesday’s seven-day average case count for Oahu is 69, and the positivity rate is 3.0%, according to Caldwell. Since late October, Oahu has been stuck in Tier 2 of the reopening strategy, and progress is dependent on average case count and positivity rate. To move up to Tier 3, Oahu would need to have a seven-day average case count of 20-49 and a positivity rate of 1% to 2.49%.
Caldwell also deferred to state and federal guidance about who should receive the COVID-19 vaccine — a response to a Tuesday news release from U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who said residents 65 years and older should receive a higher priority than they do.
“Our kupuna should not have to compete for the limited supply of vaccines with the tens of thousands of younger healthy people categorized as ‘essential workers’ — which could mean anything from liquor store workers to lawyers to phone company employees,” Gabbard said in the release.
The state Department of Health has published a timeline of who gets the vaccines first. A spokesman for the department referred to a timeline published by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which gives health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities the highest priority, receiving the vaccines in the first “phase” of its timeline.
In the next phase are people 75 years and older along with “front-line essential workers,” who include firefighters, grocery store workers, Postal Service employees and teachers, followed by those who are 65 years and older, younger people with high-risk medical conditions and other essential workers.
The DOH examines the ACIP’s recommendations and then tailors them to Hawaii’s needs and circumstances. Who qualifies as a front-line essential worker and where they are on the timeline is still being determined, according to the DOH, although police officers, firefighters and other first responders on Kauai received vaccinations Tuesday.