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.”
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.
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.
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.
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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Blaze Lovell is spending a year as a local investigations fellow with The New York Times. He was previously a reporter for Civil Beat. Born and raised on Oahu, Lovell is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.