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Senators meet with governor’s task force, other administration officials to discuss NMI response to Covid-19 crisis

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(CNMI Senate) — On Monday, May 11, 2020, members of the Senate met with the Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force Chairman Warren Villagomez, Governor’s Authorized Representative Patrick Guerrero, Department of Finance Secretary David Atalig, and Homeland Security and Emergency Management Special Assistant Gerald Deleon Guerrero by request of Senate President Victor B. Hocog.

The purpose of the meeting was for the Senate to receive an update status of all efforts, concerns, and challenges encountered in addressing the global pandemic resulting from the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. As stated in Senate President Hocog’s letter request for the meeting, “It is critical that as a legislative body, elected by our people, that we remain abreast of all matters addressed by the Covid-19 Task Force as part of our efforts to keep our constituents informed, more importantly those of whom do not have immediate access to the dissemination of information circulating media outlets.”

As a result of the voluminous information gathered during the meeting, it is the intent of the Senate, under the leadership of Senate President Victor B. Hocog to inform the general public of the following updates.

A lot of efforts

As stated by the Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force Chairman Villagomez, Governor Ralph DLG Torres continues to work closely with the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation Chief Executive Office Esther Muna, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force, along with the Governor’s Authorized Representative involving a lot of efforts and commitments by all involved in safeguard the community while trying to minimize any outbreak in the CNMI.

It is important to note that before U.S. President Donald Trump made any official response to address the global pandemic, the CNMI was already working behind the scenes to keep our community safe due to our geographic location in close proximity to China and neighboring Asian countries from the CNMI. As stated by Chairman Villagomez, “My role at CHCC alarmed me to start getting intelligence of this phenomenon. I’m calling it a phenomenon because it was unknown in the beginning…whether it’s something that we should worry about it. But at the same time, before Covid-19, we were dealing with measles outbreaks, dengue outbreaks, and other infectious diseases within our region.” Chairman Villagomez in his official capacity also serves as the CHCC- Public Health Emergency Preparedness Director prior to his appointment by Governor Ralph DLG Torres to serve as the Chairman of the Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force.

Since January 2020, CHCC worked closely with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection providing additional resources focusing on passengers arriving to the CNMI from Asian countries when they began implementation of the health travel questionnaires handed to Saipan-bound passengers. At which time, a passenger showing any symptom associated with the Novel Coronavirus would immediately be placed under surveillance by CHCC-PHEP to initiate further protocols for a potential infectious disease case.

Due to the increased uncertainty and the Governor’s concern to safeguard our community from the spread of Covid-19, Chairman Villagomez was approached regarding a plan to bring people together to formulate and contribute new ideas and recommendations to ensure the safety of our community, at which time Chairman Villagomez agreed, “No one can do this alone. CHCC can’t do this alone, […] we need holistic government efforts and in accordance to all measures […].”

Securing Borders

In the initial stages of the pandemic, the Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force created a “Covid-19

Playbook” focused on addressing the CNMI’s boarders, point of entry, incoming flights, and level

of risks which recommended the closure of boarders as a protective measure for the CNMI. From there Governor Ralph DLG Torres reached out to the Department of Defense, U.S. Homeland Security, and the Federal Aviation Administration with a response from the federal government saying that the governor has no authority to close CNMI boarders. “But those efforts triggered a lot of monumental concerns all over the nation that a small-island territory is moving things in regards to safeguarding its boarder and elevated a national concern in regards to resources, pre- positioning our resources, resources allocation, and even getting Region 9 to trigger the need of assistance in this geographic separation from the United States continent,” Chairman Villagomez stated.

Prompt Action

The Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force anticipates a target deadline later this month for the procurement of assets and medical equipment to include identifying medical personnel to respond at the alternate care site in the event that the use of the facility is needed.

Procurement of personal protective equipment  were initiated early on resulting in an ample supply for the CNMI. Additionally, now that the CNMI is a member of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is reviewing the CNMI’s procured assets to determine the possibility of sharing supplies with Guam and American Samoa.

Chairman Villagomez further shared that the long hours and efforts by everyone involved prompted advance strides before any other pacific jurisdiction in areas concerning the “clinical services, quarantine sites, person under investigation, hotel accommodation sites — identified to separate the worried well from the Covid-19 infectious, and coming up with an alternate care site. […] We are way ahead,” Chairman Villagomez stated, “we planned this out before the actual [Human and Health Services toolkit] was put in place.” However, despite the efforts to place the CNMI ahead, the focus is to remain proactive as though we are still addressing the pandemic in its initial stages with the intent to procure more supplies in anticipation of a surge in the number of positive cases, as stated by Governor’s Authorized Representative Patrick Guerrero, “Better to be prepared than to play catch up like other places.”

Public Health Mandates for Businesses

As part of a community effort to flatten the curve of Covid-19, businesses have been advised and are being monitored to adhere to the mandates of social distancing of at least six-feet apart and making sure all hygienic processes in establishments are followed. Additional recommendations were provided to wipe surfaces with disinfectant solutions with minimal costs to the establishment, such as the recommended 5% bleach to a gallon of water. The Senate was also informed of the approval by FEMA to contract engineers with proper credentials in designing space-related flow plans to help businesses or offices best utilize their space.

 

Inbound Flights to the CNMI

Onsite testing is provided to all inbound passengers into the CNMI. Most of the inbound passengers are returning residents, but there are also professionals coming into the CNMI that may impact Covid-19 efforts. However, in light of the recent positive case resulting from an inbound passenger, the Senate was informed that alternative measures are being discussed to further ensure the safety of our community. One major factor being considered is the possibility of quarantining all passengers for several days then tested due to the difference in serology — the scientific study of serum and other body fluids — in each person. More information will be provided to the community when finalized.

Unfortunately, a quarantine site cannot be identified on Rota or Tinian due to the limited services and safeguarding procedures necessary to properly manage the daily operations of a quarantine facility similar to the existing protocols in place at the quarantine sites on Saipan. 

It is important to note that an individual with a booked reservation from Guam to Rota, via Star Marianas Air. must make their initial entry into the CNMI on Saipan to adhere to the quarantine mandate. The difference in airfare costs to travel to Saipan is covered under the efforts made to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in all senatorial district.

At present, there are no arrangements between Guam and the CNMI in regards to any inbound passengers with the CNMI as their final destination. If a traveler making their way to the CNMI has been quarantined at any time during transit, this does not exempt the individual from adhering to the mandated time frame for being quarantined upon arrival into the CNMI.

Community-Based Testing

Since the commencement of the community-based testing the results and process of gathering results have offered much guidance in the decisions made to continue safeguarding the community. Residents may register online or by phone for a scheduled date and time for testing sites at the airport. Chairman Villagomez recognized that it may be an inconvenience and not a friendly process but clarified that “there is process for quality control and quality assurance to testing.”

For this reason, the community-based testing was temporarily suspended to address those factors due to the overwhelmed interest by residents in hopes to better serve the community in an efficient way that is more convenient and accommodating.

As recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, the medical criteria for multiple families in a single household in the event that any person presents a symptom of Covid-19 is to call to the Medical Care Treatment Site for further assessment. To ensure patient confidentiality and to contain the matter, a surveillance team is available to go out into the community to conduct testing.

Community based testing will be made available to Rota and Tinian in the coming weeks as necessary assessments and protocols were finalized in the event that a positive case is confirmed on Rota or Tinian. In the event of a confirmed PUI on Rota or Tinian, the patient and their household family members will be home quarantined under the supervision of the Department of Public Safety while waiting for accommodations to be finalized for transfer to the quarantine site on Saipan. Once a PUI has recovered or tested negative result, including their family member(s), a disinfection process is done at their place of residence to ensure that our people are returning to a clean and safe living environment in hopes to reduce the chances of reinfection.

Test Kits and Laboratory Enhancement

The Korean test kits, its credibility and quality were reassured after FEMA procured 600,000 within

hours after the CNMI procured their supply. In regards to concerns circulating the community relating to an error to a result, Chairman Villagomez acknowledged that it is expected and “that’s the reason why we made the decision to suspend [community based testing] to make sure that quality control is in place and we don’t compromise any false results”.  Currently the CNMI has four types of test kits: Korean test kits, used on a daily basis for surveillance; Abbot, CDC and HHS recommended; BioFire cartridges, and GeneXpert. 

In line with the CNMI’s foresight to procure necessary test kits during this pandemic and as part of the ongoing plans and developments, it is the goal of CHCC to enhance and expand their laboratory capability. Given our geographic location, the CNMI remains vulnerable to a variety of infectious diseases. Therefore, much effort is being put into motion to ensure the safety of our tight-knit community both now and in the future.

As of Monday, May 11, 2,350 tests had been conducted on Saipan. Chairman Villagomez strongly believes that the results are a positive sign, based on our population, that is very vulnerable due to the high number of underlying conditions present, population density, and our elderlies in the community that is different on every island. Public health analytical studies determine that based on the CNMI’s mortality and morbidity rates, that the elderly population applies to individuals of whom are 50 years old and above. As Chairman Villagomez stated, “We want to make sure those populations are protected. We want to prolong the lifespan of our community.”

Safe Transportation

In collaboration with the Commonwealth Office of Transit Authority, the CNMI Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management retrofitted vehicles provided to ensure the safety of the drivers and passengers while adhering to the social distancing mandate. More importantly, making sure that the vehicles are properly and thoroughly disinfected after each use.

Medical Referrals

Currently, the CNMI Medical Referral Services are only providing accommodations to patients only, which include, airfare, lodging, and daily stipends. All expenses pertaining to a family escort have been seized at this time.

Returning CNMI medical referral patients may be quarantined on Guam overnight until the following departure date of the patient. Upon entry into the CNMI, accommodations will be made to transport the medical referral patient to a quarantine site for further assessment in line with the quarantine mandate.

Group Health and Life Insurance Status for Furloughed Government Employees

About 300 of the 500 furloughs received are civil service employees that are currently under review by the Secretary of Finance to determine whether the government can bear the costs of their health and life insurance benefits, until such time that they are called back to work or decide to separate from the CNMI government.

Unfortunately, for exempted service employees, this consideration does not apply if you were affected by the implementation of personnel cuts due to the termination of employment contracts resulting to the loss of employment benefits.

Continued Efforts to Broaden Communication

The Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force continues to look at alternative options to efficiently distribute information to members in the community. Members of the Senate offered suggestions and further stressed the significance of getting information out to the community, especially for individuals without immediate access to digital devices and our elderly.

Funding the Pandemic

Several concerns have been expressed to the Senate regarding how much of the assistance will be reimbursed in response to the ongoing efforts made during this time. In the initial stages, as a result of the Governor’s Executive Order that authorized the Secretary of Finance to identify resources in preparation of the anticipated threat of Covid-19, $10 million was identified for the procurement of PPEs, test kits, and ventilators.

The CARES Act provided $36.1M to the CNMI for Covid related expenses. Monies from the CARES Act may be used to subsidize Covid-related expenses not reimbursed by FEMA to include hazardous pay and overtime expenses. As stated by Department of Finance Secretary David Atalig, the “[CARES Act] was a blessing, because it relieved a lot of the stresses […] knowing we had frontliners, we had people working, in hopes that we find funding or get funding from FEMA to pay them.” Based on the Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force, expenditure rates of different equipment, and expenditure plans of all agencies involved as part of the ongoing goal to combat the spread of Covid-19, an expenditure plan for the CARES Act funding was presented to the community by Secretary Atalig.

Secretary Atalig further stated that the $10M initially identified from the general fund in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been reimbursed through funding under the CARES Act with the understanding that FEMA may not reimburse certain projects. One project includes all the expenses used in preparing Marianas Resort that has been identified and planned as an alternative quarantine site in the event that Kanoa and the Pacific Islands Club reach their capacity.

Additionally, overtime payments for personnel not responding directly to Covid-19 hotspots, such as the quarantine sites; but providing Covid-19 related work, such as preparations for the release of the stimulus package by the Division of Revenue and Taxation are being paid through the CARES Act, which may not qualify under FEMA’s Category B program. As Secretary Atalig sated, “one thing that I needed to do to make sure as the Secretary of Finance is to ensure that we don’t double dip; pay with CARES Act and reimburse with FEMA. That’s not allowed and this will be audited very closely.”

Additional funding anticipated for the CNMI include:

  • $240M for the unemployment assistance up to December 31;
  • $4.2M from the Office of Insular Affairs out of the $55M allotted under the CARES Act for U.S. territories;
  • $385K approved by OIA that was requested prior to the CARES Act for the procurement of PPEs and other related Covid-19 expenses;
  • $1M for transportation and Covid-19 assistance provided by COTA;
  • $1.8M for Northern Marianas College, half of which went directly to PELL eligible recipients awarding $700 per student to aide their online learning; remaining half will be used to enhance remote learning, to include the procurement of mobile devices to lend to students to continue pursuing their higher education;
  • $23M for the Public School System for Covid-19 related expenses and operations;
  • $4.7M for the Governor’s discretionary funds for education; pending further approval, about 90% has been committed to NMC and a portion to possibly assist remote learning in private schools if PSS is unable to provide funding assistance;
  • CARES Act funding provided to Medicaid to assist more people that are unemployed or lost their health insurance;
  • CARES Act funding provided to the Nutrition Assistance Program to provide food security
  • Department of Lands and Natural Resources to receive funding for fisheries to assist local fishermen with supplies or keep their businesses afloat;
  • Judiciary Branch may apply for Justice Assistance Grants, approximately $45M available;
  • $20M for operations at the Saipan International Airport under the CARES Act;
  • and recently, the U.S. Department of Commerce- Economic Development Administration announced the availability of funding at $1.5B for nationwide assistance, which the CNMI will be submitting a grant application

GAR Guerrero clarified that although the pandemic is a public health emergency, based on the magnitude of the rapid spread of Covid-19, with the Stafford Act in place by President Trump, all operations and management of funds goes through FEMA. Furthermore, GAR Guerrero stated that “the major declaration [approved for the CNMI in April] provided for Category B- Emergency Work. That program allows for reimbursement for eligible activities to protect life, health, and safety.”

Currently, through the Public Assistance Program, cost share is at a 75-25. Based on per capita when that changes, once costs have reached $8M, which expenses already have, GAR Guerrero may request for a 90-10 cost share but is looking ahead and working closely with FEMA to possibly request for 100% moving forward.

For ongoing projects with reimbursement not readily available, GAR Guerrero and staff of the Public Assistance Office have been working closely with Homeland Security and Emergency Management and CHCC on project worksheets for approval by FEMA that allows for funding reimbursement to start coming in for funds spent in mitigation efforts.

“Are all the activities we are doing going to get reimbursed? That is always our goal,” GAR Guerrero stated, “[…] it’s easy when we are dealing with hardships; when do we get the power on after a storm, versus, saving lives in this type of event […] not going to sit here and say that every single penny we’re spending will get reimbursed, there will be some costs that we just have to make decisions based on saving lives that does not necessarily fall under the program’s allowance.” All while making sure to keep local expenses at a minimum because our community is suffering. In the event that FEMA is unable to reimburse expenses, other available funding sources from HHS or the CARES Act will be tapped into.

The senators would like to extend their humble appreciation to Governor Ralph DLG Torres and Lieutenant Governor Arnold I. Palacios, the Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force Chairman Warren Villagomez, Governor’s Authorized Representative Patrick Guerrero, Department of Finance Secretary David Atalig, and Homeland Security and Emergency Management Special Assistant Gerald Deleon Guerrero for taking time away from their busy schedule to provide a transparent and informative update to the Senate.

More importantly, the senators extend their full appreciation and support to all frontline responders, essential personnel, and public and private employees working around the clock during this unprecedented time of uncertainty. “Let us be remember that all the hard work, commitment and continued efforts made to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our community, is in fact a community effort. May we continue to do our part to minimize the risk and stop the spread. Stay safe, Marianas. We are, Marianas strong.”

 

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