Hawaii plans to move forward with a plan to reopen to tourists on Oct. 15, Gov. David Ige said on Wednesday, ending days of uncertainty about the governor’s plan amidst a storm of objections by neighbor island mayors and the Honolulu City councilman who represents Waikiki.
The announcement provided more details than Lt. Gov. Josh Green outlined last week; however, the broad contours of the program were unchanged: out-of-state passengers coming into Hawaii, tourists and returning residents alike, can skip the state’s 14-day quarantine by showing a negative test result from a COVID-19 test taken within a few days of heading to Hawaii.
The governor also said the state will receive 420,000 rapid antigen tests to be used at health care facilities and schools.
“This is the biggest single effort since the pandemic began to reopen our economy,” Ige said at a press conference held at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Under intense political pressure from neighbor island leaders on one side and business leaders on the other, Ige used the press availability to bring together the officials in charge of overseeing his administration’s response to the pandemic.
In addition to Green, who serves as Ige’s COVID-19 Liaison, Ige was joined by Maj. Gen. Kenneth H. Hara, director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency; Dr. Libby Char, director of the Hawaii Department of Health, and John DeFries, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Both Char and DeFries are new hires and are stepping into their positions during times of unprecedented challenge for their agencies.
Char explained that Hawaii will receive 420,000 rapid antigen tests — a simple nasal swab that provides results within 15 minutes — to use before the end of the year. She said emergency personnel would be the top priority for the tests and then schools to help with safe reopening. About 27,000 tests would be available per week, she said.
Perhaps the most interesting new details came from Green, who offered more information on a previously discussed proposal to use a second test on a random number of travelers.
Green said the state will pilot a surveillance testing program that would involve 10% of arriving passengers getting tested four days later.
Neighbor island mayors have called for something much more restrictive. The mayors — Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami, Maui Mayor Michael Victorino and Big Island Mayor Harry Kim – have said they want passengers to be required get a second negative test result to get out of quarantine. Honolulu City Councilman Tommy Waters has called for a similar system and on Wednesday the Honolulu City Council unanimously passed a resolution introduced by Waters urging the state to implement a two-test system.
Ige said no neighbor island mayors have opted out, but Kim said Tuesday he would keep the mandatory 14-day quarantine in place for Big Island travelers since only one test will be required.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is the only island mayor to openly support the one-test plan, although Caldwell has said he would like to see a second test when the capacity to test travelers increases.
So for now, Hawaii’s plan requires travelers who want to legally skip the 14-day quarantine to obtain a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departing for the islands. The test must be an FDA-authorized nucleic acid amplification test from a certified lab and will be accepted as proof that a tourist or returning resident is safe enough to skip Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine for incoming passengers.
According to the FDA, the NAAT tests detect whether there’s any of the virus’s genetic material in a sample taken from the patient’s nose or throat. These tests are considered more sensitive than antigen tests, which shows if the person has an active infection, and antibody tests, which show if the person has had the virus in the past.
Green also announced a widened list of “trusted partners” with the state. AFC Urgent Care, Carbon Health, CityHealth Urgent Care, Color, CVS Health, Kaiser Permanente, Quest Diagnostics, Vault Health and Walgreens are all providing the tests, he said.
One question is how many people who are carrying the virus will test negative. Char said studies indicate the planned test will catch between 20% to 80% of cases. To get a better indication, Green has proposed screening 10% of passengers with an optional second test, which the state would offer for free.
Many details still must be worked out, including how exactly the tests would be paid for. But Green said the second test would be worth the cost.
“None of this is free,” he said, “but the benefit is significant, knowing that we’re safe.”
The governor’s news conference followed a morning interview that Green conducted with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who serves as the nation’s top epidemiologist as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci commended Hawaii’s handling of the virus and said the state’s climate gives it an advantage over states where cold weather soon will drive people indoors. Fauci reiterated the message that the best way to keep the virus from spreading in Hawaii is for people to wear masks, practice social distancing by staying six feet apart from each other and avoiding gatherings, especially ones held indoors.
Outdoor activities, like going to the beach, are safer than staying indoors, Fauci said. But he cautioned that people shouldn’t congregate closely outdoors.
Fauci endorsed Green’s idea of conducting a second surveillance test on a sample of people, as well as the idea of a second test using less-sensitive, rapid antigen tests that could get results quickly.
In the end, Fauci stressed, no testing regime is perfect. More important is whether Hawaii has additional systems in place, and a careful public, that will limit the spread from visitors or returning residents who bring the virus into the state.
“I’m not going to be able to give you a definitive answer because let me say something that’s reality: the reality is no matter what you do, there are going to be infected people who slip through the cracks,” he said. “It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen.”
“The critical issue,” he added, “is that since you have such a low level of infection right now that you should be able to handle that and prevent that from blipping up.”
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