Hawaii County seeking virus testing for homeless, providers

  • A shelter is set up along the fence to the West Hawaii Emergency Program and Hale Kikaha off Pawai Place in Kailua-Kona. Hawaii County officials are asking the state to test all homeless and homeless program staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic as they work to house the population. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Hawaii County is asking the state to test all homeless and homeless program staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county recently submitted a request to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for testing of all unsheltered and sheltered (those living in emergency shelters and transitional housing) and program staff, according to Sharon Hirota, Mayor Harry Kim’s executive assistant assigned to homelessness.

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“We are waiting for a response from HI-EMA,” Hirota said, noting information hasn’t been shared with her about any person in the homeless population who has tested positive for COVID-19.

In addition, the county is working with its homeless program and shelter providers to ensure that they’ve implemented Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to minimize the potential of coronavirus in the program.

“The County, in partnership with the Department of Health, is also providing on-going education to the provider staff and program participants,” said Hirota.

Meanwhile, health officials on Sunday reported 13 new cases of COVID-19 in Hawaii, including five new cases from the Big Island. All of the new positive cases reported Sunday were adult Hawaii residents.

Since Feb. 28, 499 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus with 310 having recovered and been released from isolation. Hawaii County has seen a total of 39 cases of which 27 have recovered and been released from isolation.

Through noon Sunday, nine people have died from COVID-19 complications on Oahu and Maui.

With Gov. David Ige’s stay-at-home order in place and the need for safe housing, the county has expedited a number of projects to increase the number of available shelter beds on the island. Hirota said all shelters on the island are reporting full capacity in daily email updates.

“The shelters have also been challenged to not decrease bed capacity as they work on ensuring compliance with CDC congregate shelters recommendations to minimize the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in their shelters,” she said.

To increase capacity the county has an agreement with a local hotel to provide 40 rooms for homeless individuals in Kailua Village under the management of HOPE Services Hawaii; expediting repairs of additional space to provide 18 permanent housing options by early May at Keolahou in Hilo; and purchasing 50 “shelter units” for temporary housing.

“Details on location is being confirmed,” Hirota said of the county’s purchase of shelter units. “Our goal is to have the first site ready for occupancy in about two weeks.”

Officials are also moving forward with the Kukuiola emergency shelter project and Village 9 affordable rental community project off Kealakehe Parkway in Kailua-Kona, she said. Construction on the project’s first phase, which includes 20-30 emergency housing units and a temporary intake facility, was supposed to start this spring, however, Hirota said the county ran into “some delays in finalizing a design contract.”

“With that behind us, we are actively moving forward with completing all of the pre-build requirements,” she said. No additional details regarding a possible start date were provided.

Hirota said the county is still awaiting figures from the annual Point In Time Count conducted back in January. The Point In Time Count is a nationwide survey of each county in the country that seeks to take a snapshot of how many homeless people spent a night in a shelter or outside of one on a single day in January.

In 2019, 1,995 homeless people were counted statewide, a drop of 2% from 2018, when 2,035 people were counted. On the Big Island, homelessness dropped 21% from 869 to 690 this year.

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The figures, which are being finalized, are expected to be released early next month, she said. Because the count was conducted on Jan. 23 — two days after the case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the U.S. — it will not reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The county is open to ideas, Hirota said. If someone would like to share their ideas on a potential solution to help address the barriers of our homeless community members, they are encouraged to use the following link to send a comment or concern to the mayor’s office at www.hawaiicounty.gov/our-county/mayor.

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