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Column: How to get Hawai‘i back on track to fight virus

For Hawaii, another day with more than 300 COVID-19 cases. So, what should we do, and where did we go wrong?

First, our obsession with the “border” at the airport distracted us from building the public health awareness and infrastructure that will help us to get through this. We seemed, all of us, from the media to the politicians to the citizens who elected them, more interested in whether or not an individual scofflaw from the mainland was violating the quarantine than whether or not we were doing what was necessary to be ready for this onslaught. The disease is spreading among us because of us, not because of tourism. We cannot fix this with a “tougher” border, not when there’s more disease in Honolulu than New York City.

We need to do the following:

>> Focus on vulnerable communities with language and cultural competency, and do it immediately. There is a rolling catastrophe in our Pacific islander community, with eight to 10 times higher COVID-19 rates than the rest of Hawaii. We need targeted outreach in Pacific island languages with Pacific island leaders. We also need to continue to address this disparity by alleviating overcrowded housing.

>> Ramp up contact tracing and testing, something that has inexplicably not yet been done. I thought this was under control when we helped launch a training program for 400 contact tracers at the University of Hawaii. It was a shock to learn that the Department of Health chose not to hire many of these individuals, and went back to their “contact tracing isn’t a panacea” talking point. Nothing is a panacea — which is why we have to do everything, and that includes contact tracing.

>> Spend the CARES Act money designated for fighting the disease. We still have most of our testing money unspent, and several other categories of the $7 billion in danger of having to go back to the U.S. Treasury by year’s end if we don’t get our act together.

>> Have a statewide, universal mask mandate. We still have significant noncompliance, and we need to reinforce that masks are not optional. Lawyers will correctly point out that everyone is covered under individual county orders, but everything to emphasize and enforce the importance of masks should be done.

>> Move carefully forward with the Safe Travels Hawaii Program, understanding that a negative test as a barrier to entry in Hawaii is not foolproof, but it’s better than the current quarantine that is increasingly absurd (many originating destinations have lower infection rates than us) and difficult to enforce.

>> Allow people to exercise outdoors. Whatever happens in the coming weeks, this is going to take a while, and helping people remain mentally and physically healthy is a priority. HPD may be hesitant to enforce rules around gatherings, but that’s no reason to force everyone onto narrow sidewalks, or stay at home completely.

>> On communications, we need to be more clear, concise and focused on what people should do, rather than fixating on disagreements among politicians. This isn’t a matter of PR consultants giving our leaders the right words to say. But it would be a good start to not have simultaneous and competing press conferences and to have clear instructions. The deluge of information has caused some to want to ignore the orders, instead of heed them.

>> Finally, our actions should reflect not just science but our values. We cannot open bars before schools. We cannot force people to pay a gym for exercise or say that the only way you can visit with family is to pay for dinner at an indoor restaurant. We cannot bicker. We have to stay disciplined, and do the things that we have seen work around the world. We are all in the same canoe, and if we don’t paddle in unison, we will continue to go in circles.

Brian Schatz represents Hawaii in the U.S. Senate.