Honolulu officials are extending a federally backed COVID-19 testing program until mid-September, after what Mayor Kirk Caldwell called a “rocky rollout.”

Approximately 1,776 people will be invited to a “retest event” after their testing vials were mislabeled. People who had inconclusive results may also attend other upcoming COVID-19 testing events.

“The lab validates each specimen by looking at the patient information on the voucher and matching it with the patient information on the vial,” Mia Heck, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email. “Since there was no patient information on the vials, the lab had to send each patient a notice that they had an inconclusive result.”

COVID-19 surge testing held at Kapiolani Park. August 31, 2020
COVID-19 surge testing was held at Kapiolani Park on Monday. The window for getting a free test is being extended until mid-September. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

More than 60 Honolulu Fire Department staff are volunteering to collect specimens and operate the testing drives.

Deputy Fire Chief Lionel Camara said a major issue Wednesday — the first day of the program’s launch — was that only 15 of the expected 50 eTrueNorth support nursing staff arrived. Texas-based company eTrueNorth is federally contracted to organize testing drives in other “hotspot” locations and has conducted similar programs in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. Hawaii specimens are flown to California for testing.

“It should have been 50 the first day,” Camara said. “I don’t want to speculate, you have to ask eTrueNorth what happened. It’s an island state, that’s all I can say. It’s not like the mainland where you can grab resources all over. We all struggled the first day.”

Spokespeople with eTrueNorth did not respond to Civil Beat’s inquiry on Monday.

Now, between 40 and 50 federally contracted staff are on-site assisting volunteer fire department staff.

Nearly 35,000 people have registered during the past five days to be tested at upcoming events, Caldwell said. Of those, more than 10,500 showed up to testing events over the weekend. City spokespeople said they were not able to provide the latest testing results.

“We’re working to receive access to daily test information and data which is traditionally given to the local health department,” said Alexander Zannes, a spokesperson with the mayor’s office.

Heck with HHS would not provide any testing results, and said numbers would be available Tuesday morning.

The glitches were on the first day — and the first day only — Caldwell said, noting more than 10,000 people were tested over the weekend.

“We don’t want people to give up because of glitches on the first day that we’ve learned from. People are showing up in extraordinary numbers to help us find out where the virus is,” he said.

Medical personnel assist patients with self swab COVID-19 testing at Kapioani Park near the Bandstand. August 31, 2020
Medical personnel assist patients with self-swab COVID-19 testing at Kapiolani Park. Volunteers from the fire department are helping to staff the testing drive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell said HHS has agreed to provide 30,000 more specimen collection kits and enough support staff to extend the program to run a total of about three weeks.

The goal is to test as many as 90,000 people by Sept. 14, regardless of their symptoms. Caldwell said he did not know how much of eTrueNorth’s federal contract was earmarked for Hawaii.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said surveillance testing like this is beneficial.

“It gives us a perspective on our positivity rate,” he said.

Green said there are state plans to contract with more private laboratories to conduct more testing in the months to come.

“I believe we need 10,000 tests a day to adequately contain the virus,” he said. “The idea is they’d come in with their own products and capacity so we could test people, whether it’s educators going back to classrooms, students or first responders — as constant background.”

As of Monday, 297 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 related issues in the islands.

“It’s very high volumes on Oahu, and increasing volumes in Hilo,” Green said. “These are the highest numbers we’ve had in an outbreak, ever.”

About 5,800 people with active infections are currently being monitored by state health officials, according to Green.

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