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FEMA gives Hawaii nearly $48M to pay traveling healthcare workers

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday announced the advance of $47.9 million in federal funds to help pay for health care workers from abroad to help hospitals struggling with staffing shortages due to COVID-19 during the omicron surge.

The amount is half of the $95.8 million sought by the state at the request of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii to bring 955 medical personnel to the isles contracted through ProLink Healthcare from this month through April 1.

But the rest is expected to be reimbursed, according to HI-EMA, which managed the emergency funding request.

Both the Hawaii Department of Health and HI-EMA asked for an advance of 50% of the funding to expedite payment to the contracted medical personnel, mostly nurses, but also respiratory therapists and others, whose services are in high demand nationwide as coronavirus infections skyrocket to new highs.

“The whole contract was determined to be eligible for FEMA reimbursement,” said HI-EMA spokesman Adam Weintraub. “The first half was advanced to begin the process as quickly as possible.”

The contracted health care personnel began arriving over the weekend, and there are now about 350 deployed at hospitals statewide, according to Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, during a press conference Wednesday. Another 400 are expected to arrive this weekend.

Raethel estimated nearly 2,000 health care workers statewide, likely more, are in quarantine or isolation and unable to work due to infection or exposure to the coronavirus.

The total number of patients in hospitals now, at about 2,400, has also exceeded the 2,365 that filled beds during the delta surge.

“Our biggest challenge continues to be the adequacy of our workforce,” he said. “The rest of January will continue to be challenging for our health care workforce and the impact of the omicron surge will extend well into February.”

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