Kim creates multi-agency COVID-19 task force

  • Deputy Fire Chief Lance Uchida and Mayor Harry Kim address the County council on Wednesday in Hilo. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

Mayor Harry Kim has named a multi-agency task force to tackle the likely spread of COVID-19 on the island.

During an unscheduled briefing Wednesday that lasted more than an hour, Kim described to the County Council steps his administration is taking to be proactive on the island, which has not yet had a resident test positive for the new coronavirus.

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The mayor described a balancing act that weighs keeping the public informed while not alarming them and offsetting the island economy against community safety.

Kim said he wasn’t ready to say whether the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, scheduled for April, should be canceled, saying the festival, like the cruise ships and airlines visiting the islands, is an essential part of the economy. Merrie Monarch is the biggest East Hawaii tourist event of the year, and some locals spend an entire year fabricating items for sale during that short period.

“Whether it’s my authority or not, I am obligated to look at all the factors of decision making,” Kim said. “Economic impact obviously means lifestyle changes, survival, not just a disease.”

Led by Deputy Fire Chief Lance Uchida, the task force includes the Mayor’s Office, the county Department of Civil Defense, the state Department of Health and Hilo Medical Center.

The task force will focus on seven groups, Uchida said: kupuna, keiki, educational institutions, businesses, homeless, civic groups and churches, public safety personnel and large gatherings. Uchida said the priorities are “community risk reduction,” taking a “calm, but organized approach.”

South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David asked the administration to add West Hawaii medical professionals to the task force as well.

“As you know, the west side is the tourist destination magnet,” David said. “This is an islandwide emergency.”

Community education is a big part of the new initiative, Kim and Uchida said. But several council members pointed to cases where the lines of communication have recently failed.

A case in point was the administration’s attempt over the weekend to mop up behind a cruise ship that had docked in Hilo and was later discovered to carry 21 people who later tested positive for the disease. Images of masked personnel in hazmat suits spraying and wiping surfaces at county parks were posted by individuals on social media, with no explanation by the county.

“Clear communication equals less anxiety. … If you want everyone to get calm, tell us what’s happening,” said Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder. “It’s the public’s desire to know what’s happening. It’s not political, it’s not sensationalizing. It’s letting everyone know what’s going on.”

Kim said he’d try to do better. He said the notification about the cruise ship infections came late and he wanted to get staff out there to do what it could after the fact.

“One of our objectives is to not increase panic and fear,” Kim said. “We were notified in the afternoon of infected people visiting our island. … I will make sure that standard operating procedure is notification.”

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas described community concerns about the cruise ships that visit ports in Hilo and Kailua-Kona. Not only are there concerns about infected cruise ship passengers mingling with the population, there’s also a concern about effluent, some council members said. A cruise ship is allowed to discharge treated sewage no closer than three nautical miles from land, while untreated sewage can be discharged no closer than 12 nautical miles, Uchida said.

“I’m getting calls to stop the cruise ships, to which I respond it’s really not in my sphere of influence,” Villegas said.

Kim said he met with cruise line officials Tuesday and had them describe mitigation steps they are taking. He said they’ve initiated a number of steps to sanitize the ships and minimize the spread of coronavirus.

“Whether it’s within my authority or not, I am obligated to look at all the factors of decision-making,” Kim said. “We get nasty calls or letters — ‘Why aren’t you doing this or doing that?’ — and it’s not that simple. … We are reviewing everything we need to make the right, timely, decisions.”

Still, council members praised Kim for being ahead of the rest of the state in addressing the COVID-19 emergency, including issuing an emergency proclamation days ahead of the state and other counties following suit, and holding council briefings.

“I’ve got to give you credit, Mayor. … I really appreciate you guys being on top of this,” said council Chairman Aaron Chung of Hilo. “It makes me very scared. My intuition tells me that we have more than two people in the state of Hawaii that have coronavirus. We are in for more rough times before it gets better.”

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter relayed concerns from two of her constituents who have been sick for two weeks and tested negative for flu and strep, yet they haven’t been tested for coronavirus. They also called the county’s newly established hotline, 935-0031, which is open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. seven days a week to answer questions about the coronavirus.

“Great we have that hotline. … I love how we have all these things in place, but they’re still falling through the cracks,” Poindexter said. “I have two people reaching out to me right now that are panicking and I don’t blame them. … They’re doing everything we’re asking them to do but there’s no followup.”

Kim took the criticism in stride.

“No matter how complete we are, there will always be cracks,” Kim said. “That’s the nature of everything, of people, of communication.”

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Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said the council needs to take a close look at the budget in the upcoming months, recognizing that the general excise tax revenue may not be as high as estimated because of fewer visitors.

“We need to be proactive rather than reactive and plan ahead,” Richards said. “I don’t want to stand around going, ‘shoulda coulda woulda.’ I want to make the hard decisions early on.”

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