The Daniel K. Inouye International Airport did not act as a so-called “super-spreader” to help catapult the COVID-19 virus into global pandemic territory, despite the suggestion that might happen in an eight-year-old study that’s been making the rounds on social media.

That’s according to the lead author of that study, University of Cyprus professor and Massachusetts Institute of Technology fellow Christos Nicolaides.

In 2012, Nicolaides’ MIT team found that Honolulu’s airport, despite its modest flight and passenger traffic, could act early on as one of the nation’s most potent spreaders in an outbreak. Among U.S. airports, only New York and Los Angeles, which see far greater airport traffic, ranked higher.

Its surprise findings revealed that geography — Honolulu air travel links the U.S. West Coast and Asia — plus connections to bigger hubs played just as big a role in spreading contagion via air travel as an airport’s traffic and size.

As the COVID-19 crisis has deepened, old articles on the study have spread across Twitter and Facebook, leaving some Hawaii social media users to consider what role Honolulu played in propagating the virus.

“Actually, to be honest, I don’t think Honolulu played a role in this situation,” Nicolaides said Wednesday during a phone interview from his home in Cyprus — another island tourist destination, on the opposite side of the globe.

The virus originated in Wuhan Province, China, which isn’t connected closely enough to Honolulu, Nicolaides said. The Oahu airport would not be able to spread COVID-19 as described in the 2012 report.

What’s key, he added, is that the MIT study analyzed the first days of an outbreak — not its subsequent weeks and months in which it takes hold around the world.

For Honolulu to play a role in COVID-19’s spread, the virus would have had to start somewhere such as Japan or the West Coast or even Honolulu itself, Nicolaides said. Instead, the air travel that helped spread coronavirus in those early days mostly took place domestically within China itself.

If Honolulu had direct flights from Wuhan, it likely would have played a role in spreading, but “China is a huge country,” he said.

Furthermore, Nicolaides added, Hawaii’s “very lucky” that the virus largely traveled west — “on the other side of the world” — rather than going east through Honolulu.

Had it done so, Hawaii would likely be in a much more dire situation right now, he said.

‘Plug The Cap’ On The Virus

While Honolulu’s airport may not have acted as a super-spreader to diffuse coronavirus across the globe, plenty of concerns remain locally about importing more of the virus onto Hawaii shores.

As of Thursday, state Department of Health had reported 26 confirmed COVID-19 cases across Hawaii. So far, those state health officials have classified the local cases as travel-related, with no reports yet of community spread.

Nicolaides’ home island of Cyprus, meanwhile, is surrounded by Europe’s massive outbreak. As of Thursday the Mediterranean country had at least 67 confirmed cases. It plans to put its airports on a 14-day lockdown, banning all passenger flights starting Saturday.

American Airlines lands at Daniel Inouye Airport.
An American Airlines flight lands at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. The author of a 2012 study on the airport’s unique potential to spread contagion said it didn’t factor into the COVID-19 outbreak. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It’s definitely going to plug the cap of the disease,” said Nicolaides, who’s a professor at the University of Cyprus in addition to being an MIT fellow. The move aims to keep the virus’ outbreak at levels that the island can handle.

Asked whether Hawaii should adopt a similar strategy, Nicolaides said Wednesday that the state’s leaders would inevitably have to consider restricting passenger travel.

“At some point, you will consider it very seriously,” he said. “But it’s difficult to convince a government that without any community spreading it’s necessary to take those measures.”

On Thursday morning, Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green proposed suspending all non-essential travel to Hawaii through April.

It’s not clear how that would work, however. The state’s Department of Transportation lacks the authority to shut down the airport — it would have to get such a move cleared through the federal authorities who control U.S. airspace, agency spokesman Tim Sakahara said Thursday.

By Thursday evening, the state Senate committee on the COVID-19 response announced it had agreed with the state’s Airports Division to move ahead with a 14-day home quarantine program for most arriving passengers to Hawaii. Green said the state had the legal capacity to implement that plan, which is so far estimated to cost $1 million a month.

It’s not yet clear whether Gov. David Ige will endorse the plan. On Thursday, Ige spokeswoman Cindy McMillan said that more restrictive measures could take effect as the COVID-19 situation develops.

Time is of the essence, and those leading the nation’s lone island state need to be as proactive in combating the spread as possible before the number of cases grows too large, Nicolaides said.

“The local government there needs to understand you are in the middle of the ocean,” he said, and “you have no immediate help” from any hospitals outside the state’s borders.

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