State eases welfare requirements

  • ANDERSON

  • BHANOT

  • GREEN

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald A sunbather sits up and looks out Monday at Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo. The few park visitors maintained social distance while taking advantage of the sunny day.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald A postal worker delivers mail Monday on Kinoole Street in downtown Hilo. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended anyone going out in public to wear a mask over their face.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald A beachgoer looks to bandage a friend’s foot next to a line of cars parked outside Richardson Ocean Park on Monday in Hilo. Although the park is closed, patrons parked outside the gates to go to the ocean to swim, surf, snorkel and fish.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald A man emerges Monday from Richardson Ocean Park in Hilo by a sign confirming that the ocean is open while the beach is closed. Sunbathing and loitering are prohibited while activities in the water are allowed.

State Department of Human Services Director Pankaj Bhanot said Monday that eligibility restrictions will be loosened for general assistance payments — commonly known as welfare — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking during Gov. David Ige’s media briefing, Bhanot said provisions of Ige’s emergency declaration mean those who apply for benefits will, for now, be the beneficiary of “a presumptive eligibility for general assistance for the duration of the emergency.”

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He added that benefits certification periods were extended and compliance checks suspended, for now.

General assistance, in most cases, isn’t available to able-bodied individuals.

According to Bhanot, there also will be some changes in eligibility for those needing child care and licensing for child care providers.

He also said Social Security recipients who haven’t filed federal tax returns for 2018 and 2019 “will not need to file an abbreviated tax return to receive an economic impact payment.” Those onetime payments of up to $1,200, also called stimulus checks, will be direct-deposited into the accounts of Social Security recipients.

As of noon Monday, according to the state Department of Health, the total number of statewide COVID-19 cases was 387, with 16 newly reported.

Those numbers include the fifth recorded death of a COVID-19 patient and the first on a neighbor island, an elderly Maui man who had other underlying health issues, according to the DOH.

Hawaii County had 23 reported cases and one new case.

State Health Director Bruce Anderson said of the 16 new cases statewide, one was a minor, the rest adults. One of the new cases is a visitor, and the origin of seven of those cases was unknown, pending investigation.

“On Saturday, we had 34 cases. On Sunday, we had 20. Today, we have 16 reported,” Anderson said. “This is not to be assuming that the disease is on a downward trend. Typically, on weekends, we see a decrease in the number of cases, simply because the reports are not submitted as quickly as they are during the week. And I think the worst is still yet to come. … It is a contagious and very virulent virus.”

Anderson added that it’s “encouraging that it’s not going the other way at this point in time.”

He added the state is expecting its first shipment today of quick-testing instruments and kits manufactured by Abbott Laboratories.

“Unfortunately, we are only expecting about … five test kits delivered, each of which can test 24 individuals over the next week. So that’s a total of 120 individuals,” he said.

According to Anderson, demand for the Abbott testing kits is so high that the backlog will allow only for about the same number of tests weekly “for the foreseeable future.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Kona physician who leads the state’s COVID-19 task force, had a bit more sobering news, saying, as of Monday, there were 56 people hospitalized statewide because of the virus.

“This is increased from about 25,” Green said. “The reason for this is as people get sick with COVID-19, they go through a series of changes with their health. Some people get a little bit better or worse, or could have chronic lung impacts. That number of 56, not all who are on ventilators, are getting care in our hospitals.”

As of noon Monday, none of the hospitalized patients were on the Big Island.

Green said the state currently has the capacity to treat those who need it.

“We have 2,757 hospital beds in our state; 1,331 are occupied. That is 48%. This is an improvement over last week, a 7% improvement. So we have fewer people in the hospital right now, though more with COVID-19,” he said. “We have 338 intensive care unit beds, out of which 106 are filled. That’s a rate of 31.3%. This also is a decrease.

“That’s very good news for us. That means we have the capacity to care for those in greatest need. If you’re in the intensive care unit, the most likely need you’ll have is … a ventilator. In Hawaii, we have 535 ventilators available to us. Currently, only 81 of those ventilators are being used. That’s 15%.”

Green acknowledged the health and economic crises, plus social distancing requirements and the stay-at-home order — measures intended to stem the increase of COVID-19 cases — have people “stressed out right now.”

“We are all stressed out because we are at home; there is not as much to do (and) all of our life patterns have been changed,” he said. “But there is no reason to be scared. When we have stress, realize it. Seek mental health care services if you need them. … The Department of Health has an excellent hot line … 808-531-3371. … At these times, unfortunately, domestic violence ticks up. Please, if you have a problem, call 1-800-799-SAFE.”

Green reiterated that despite the stress, the stay-at-home and social distancing orders — as well as wearing a mask in public to protect others — are of paramount importance.

“We are not out of the woods yet, at all,” he said. “There have been many people who have taken to heart the full home monitoring, home quarantine (and) home isolation. That’s been extraordinary. But there are still others that haven’t. And every time a party occurs, and we hear stories of people congregating on the beach or at home, please know that is a selfish thing to do.

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“I don’t mean to be overly critical, but that is how the virus can continue to spread, and it will make it more difficult for us to have success at the end of this month through the lockdown of the home quarantine.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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