The state has a laundry list of things to do before it can lift a 14-day mandatory quarantine and throw open the doors to tourists again.

Hawaii officials are stuck between keeping the islands relatively COVID-19 free and bringing back tourists to help jump start the state’s ailing economy. To do both at the same time will require a huge increase in coronavirus testing, a standing army of contact tracers ready to get to work at a moment’s notice, and compliance with social distancing guidelines on the part of locals and visitors alike.

All come with their own issues, which state officials, legislators and private lab operators tried to hammer out in an hours-long meeting of the Senate special COVID-19 committee Thursday afternoon.

“We cannot keep the draconian measure of a 14-day quarantine,” State Epidemiologist Sarah Park told the committee. “We need to accept the fact we’re living in a new COVID world.”

State Health Director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park say it will take a myriad of initiatives to keep COVID-19 cases low as tourists arrive. Screenshot: 'Ōlelo/2020

Private laboratories and the state have a total testing capacity of about 3,600 tests a day. That would need to go up to somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 a day once visitors start coming back, according to health officials and representatives from Hawaii’s public labs.

There’s been pressure from the public to test as often and as many people as possible, but that might not be a prudent strategy, they say.

Heads of labs who spoke to the panel of senators said they could still have problems getting the necessary equipment and machinery to increase their testing capacity because of a greater need for those materials elsewhere in the U.S.

Others, like S and G Labs in Kailua-Kona, may be reluctant to order more supplies if those supplies aren’t yet needed.

“I won’t put money in to release a shipment until I know there’s a need,” said S and G Labs’ CEO Lynn Welch, adding that the lab could get a shipment in three to four weeks as long as the state can give them a heads up.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green is separately working on a deal with CVS Pharmacy to test travelers coming to Hawaii. But testing is just one part of the equation, the panel concluded.

Park and state Health Director Bruce Anderson still stand by guidelines that say only symptomatic patients should be tested. And even then, tests may only provide a glimpse into a person’s condition at a single moment in time.

“If you’re asking my opinion, whether I would trust a negative result in a traveler, my answer would be no,” Park told the senators when asked if test results could be used to get out of going into quarantine.

Health officials and the legislators want to see it paired with pre- and post-flight screening of passengers. Those include temperature checks, which Anderson said is relatively ineffective but could help screen some cases.

A pilot program for lifting a mandatory 14-day quarantine started Tuesday after the state opened interisland travel. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Other measures also include filling out a travel form which could help contact tracers in the future as well as going through another series of questions to further screen travelers. That process is already being piloted for interisland travelers after the mandatory quarantine on air travel within Hawaii was lifted Tuesday.

Another portion of the reopening formula that lawmakers and health officials have debated in the past is the need for more contract tracers.

Anderson said that a program the DOH has with the University of Hawaii to hire more contact tracers could yield about 300 new tracers by the end of July. That would be in addition to the approximately 60 contract tracers on Oahu working in Park’s department right now.

That division got a staffing boost when public nurses from another agency were brought in to assist with contact tracing, Anderson said.

The senators were eager to hear what the DOH and other departments that will deal with travelers need. The Legislature is expected to reconvene Monday, and lawmakers will be considering, among other things, how to spend more than $600 million in federal relief funds.

That money could go toward contact tracers or medical equipment. However, there’s still a question of how to pay for all those programs after those funds expire in December.

These discussions all come on the heels of sobering economic reports that show the breadth of Hawaii’s struggling poor and the reality that the state will not quickly move away from tourism as its main economic engine.

The timeframe for figuring out how exactly to get the testing, screening and contract tracing together may be tight. Ford Fuchigami, an administrative services officer in the DOT’s airports division, said the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport is expected to get 20 flights on July 16.

While most of those will be less than a third full, Fuchigami said, it could still mean more people flying to Hawaii.

Anderson said the governor is still seeking “travel bubbles” with other states and countries that have low rates of COVID-19. Getting travelers from those areas, like Japan, could in theory help keep case counts low here.

“It’s like you’re getting on a bus and going across town,” Anderson said. “Where you don’t have a difference in disease rates.”

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