Dengue emergency declaration looms

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State and county officials reiterated Wednesday that they are close to declaring an emergency in response to Hawaii Island’s dengue fever outbreak and provided more details about what that declaration might mean for response efforts.

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State and county officials reiterated Wednesday that they are close to declaring an emergency in response to Hawaii Island’s dengue fever outbreak and provided more details about what that declaration might mean for response efforts.

Calls for Gov. David Ige to react more forcefully to the outbreak have come and gone virtually since the first announcement in October of the presence of locally acquired cases of the mosquito-borne virus. But those voices gained a powerful ally last week, when U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, publicly called on the governor to declare an emergency, a decision she said was “long overdue.”

At a hastily called press conference Tuesday morning, Ige said he began working on a draft of a declaration in November, but so far has refrained from finalizing it because Hawaii County officials have not asked him to do so.

In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira explained that the multiagency response efforts have so far been able to keep up with the outbreak, which he described as “pretty flat.”

“Case numbers have been pretty flat across the board,” he said. “It’s been a steady trickle, a smoldering type of outbreak. A very slow outbreak with low numbers.”

On Wednesday, the state Department of Health reported two new cases, bringing the total since the start of the outbreak on Sept. 11, 2015, to 248.

Environmental factors, as well as the species of mosquito that is primarily transmitting the disease, could be at play in helping to keep the virus from spreading rapidly, Oliveira said.

However, as the outbreak goes on, the likelihood increases that other islands might experience outbreaks of their own, either related to the dengue outbreak on the Big Island or another disease, such as the Zika virus. That means state resources might be spread thin, he said.

The Big Island is using all of the mosquito adulticide sprayers in the state, Oliveira said, so if another outbreak occurs, Hawaii County officials likely will have to give up some or all of the devices borrowed from other counties, leaving Hawaii County without the resources tit needs to respond adequately.

In an effort to prepare for such an eventuality, state and county emergency management officials say they are likely to call for an emergency declaration soon, although they couldn’t say whether that meant days or weeks.

“I’m pushing for that right now,” said Vern Miyagi, administrator for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Such a declaration from the governor would immediately make available the $500,000 in the state’s Major Disaster Fund, he said. An additional $1.5 million could be added to the fund, at Ige’s discretion.

Federal funds, however, would not be available unless the governor requests — and President Barack Obama approves — a federal emergency declaration, Miyagi said.

The declaration is largely about funding for equipment and personnel, but it also can open up lines of communication with other states that could assist with equipment and expertise, Oliveira added.

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure the Big Island is well-situated to deal with the outbreak during a long period of time, he said.

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“When you look at Maui’s (outbreak in 2001), that went on for nine months,” he said. “Ours could be at least that, but we’re preparing for longer. We need to always keep in mind to have adequate resources for the long haul. It’s a seven-day-a-week operation, and you have possibility of employees being taxed, equipment maintained and serviced. I feel like the (emergency) declaration can provide opportunities.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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