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Council urges mayor to create COVID-19 task force

Resolution gets unanimous approval

The Maui County Council voted 9-0 Tuesday to urge the mayor to establish a task force to help prepare for and respond to COVID-19-related emergencies. This screenshot was taken from Akaku Maui Community Media. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

The Maui County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution urging the mayor to establish a rapid-response COVID-19 task force.

Proposed by Council Member Kelly King, the resolution said the task force would advise the administration and the council by “planning for and implementing mitigation strategies and emergency responses relating to COVID-19.”

The group would be led by the county managing director and include two council members, one state legislator, Maui District health officer Dr. Lorrin Pang and three residents with “relevant expertise.”

In addition to pushing for a mandatory second COVID-19 test to avoid quarantine for Maui County arrivals, the group would help educate residents and visitors about the county’s public health emergency rules on gatherings, social distancing and mask wearing. The task force also would “improve compliance” with pandemic rules, according to the resolution. 

Currently, arrivals to Maui County must provide a negative COVID-19 test, taken within 72 hours of departure, to bypass the state’s 14-day mandatory self-quarantine. A second test within 72 hours of arrival is voluntary but encouraged by Maui and Kauai counties. Separately, a second test is offered by the state through its surveillance program to select travelers.

Ahead of the 9-0 vote, Council Member Riki Hokama, who holds the Lanai residency seat, pointed to concerns from Lanai residents over COVID-19 enforcement when it comes to travel.

The rural island has been under the strictest pandemic orders for the last two weeks when COVID-19 cases jumped from zero to more than 100. The Health Department reported 106 total positive cases on Lanai on Tuesday. 

“The island is still concerned about who comes on and off the island, and rightfully so,” Hokama said. “There is a concern of whether or not safety protocols are being practiced and whether the potential visitors have been doing the appropriate requirements to ensure Lanai protects its community and reduces its continued COVID-19 active cases.”

He added that enforcing COVID-19 travel rules through Manele Small Boat Harbor, along with fair and consistent ways to conduct contact tracing, remain worries for Lanaians.

About five testifiers spoke on the item during the council’s regular meeting and all were in support.

Kai Duponte, a Pukalani resident and retired social worker, said a rapid-response COVID-19 task force should be implemented on every island.

“Every Neighbor Island should have a COVID-19 task force, and they should all work together, along with Oahu,” she said. “The Neighbor Islands are different than Oahu — we have less cases but less resources. One size does not fit all in this case.”

Duponte added that the task force would ensure the county is keeping up with the latest information on tests, contact tracing, reporting, metrics for closing or reopening, emergency health rules, such as masks and social distancing, along with vaccine distribution.

Testifier Sam Small said that Maui isn’t prepared to deal with the COVID-19 increases that are coming due to more relaxed travel rules, noting that 22 percent of tourists coming to Hawaii are entering the county.

“It has become evident that the Mayor’s Office is not taking an aggressive approach to maximizing the tools that are available to us to stem the tide of COVID-19 in our community,” Small said. 

He added that a task force can help avoid a “third outbreak” at Maui Memorial Medical Center by looking into claims alleging state and federal mask guidelines are not being followed there.

King said the task force is another tool in the toolbox for the county, especially because the Mainland is seeing a rise in cases.

“Curfews are being reimplemented on the Mainland, hospitals are filling up again, and the county needs a rapid response COVID-19 task force so we can avoid going down the same path,” King said. 

Council Member Tamara Paltin said another intent of the task force is to keep the county from shutting down again and get ahead of large-scale community spread.

“If we sit back and do nothing, saying ‘Oh well, there’s not a lot of cases right now, let’s see what happens,’ the possibility of becoming similar to Lanai is even greater,” she said. “The purpose of this resolution is to avoid a shutdown, and if there is community spread, to address it quickly.

“It’s not a step that should be seen as fear mongering.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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