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Hawaii gets $14.2M grant for public health response

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The Hawaii Department of Health got a financial boost for the work it does in the wake of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded the state $14.2 million as part of its Public Health Infrastructure Grant, which is supported in part by the American Rescue Plan.

If the pandemic made anything clear, it was how important it is to have a workforce ready to respond, the ability to share scientific findings faster, and to translate that science into practical and easy-to-understand policy — all part of CDC’s “Moving Forward” initiative.

“It is critical that every community and every state has a strong infrastructure for public health,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, who was in Honolulu on Monday. “During my time visiting Hawaii I have seen innovative ways in which the state is looking to equitably protect the health of its people. We must continue to prioritize these programs and efforts, for a strong and more prepared public health system of the future.”

Of the $14.2 million, which will focus mostly on rural and underrepresented populations, $13.5 million will support workforce development, such as recruiting, training and retaining staff, while $705,000 will support foundational capabilities, such as a public health accreditation team, a department communications office and community partnerships.

During her visit to Honolulu, Walensky heard from CDC grant recipients working on programs including chronic health prevention, HIV/AIDS, immunizations, respiratory diseases and overdose prevention.

DOH staff also briefed her on health issues affecting Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Island communities.

Walensky told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the U.S. is in a “much better place” in the pandemic due to a wall of immunity and availability of treatments for COVID-19, but that CDC’s work is not done.

There are still hundreds of Americans dying from COVID each day, resulting in a U.S. death toll of more than 1.1 million.

Many of these deaths resulted from people who did not get antiviral pill treatments like Paxlovid or COVID vaccines, she said, and CDC is still working to encourage people to take these measures to protect themselves.

Hawaii, however, did quite well during the pandemic, she said, with higher overall vaccination rates.

In Hawaii, uptake of the bivalent booster is higher than the national average — with 21% of the total population having received the bivalent booster, compared to 16.4% of the U.S. population.

Statewide COVID case counts remained steady, according to DOH, which on Wednesday reported a daily average of 66 new cases per day over the past week, a drop from 74 per day reported the previous week. The average positivity rate was at 5.2%.

Another five COVID- related deaths were reported, bringing Hawaii’s death toll to 1,854, including a man in his 70s who died while out of state.

CDC still plans to continue surveillance, but faces challenges due to the May 11 ending of the federal public health emergency, which requires that states report COVID lab test data.

CDC does not have the authority to mandate that states report COVID lab test data, and much of that data is already diminishing from various U.S. states, according to Walensky.

She noted, as well, that case counts are also becoming less accurate due to home antigen tests and that the test positivity also may be difficult to track as testing data is lost.

“We will do our best to be as transparent as we can with the data that come in,” she said.

And CDC still has a lot of work ahead — whether it be sharing scientific findings, not just on COVID but avian flu and other diseases, combating misinformation through fact and science, and regaining the public’s trust.

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