Hawaii welcomed more than 8,000 travelers on Thursday, as the state kicked off its pre-travel testing program designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and allow the reopening of one of the state’s largest industries.
But the architect of the testing program, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, said much work still must be done to make sure the program works as planned and Hawaii’s economy can begin to recover. The basics he said, are key: residents wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart and avoiding gatherings.
But there’s more. Tweaking airport logistics, finding more places to offer qualifying tests, unrolling a surveillance testing program and finally opening public schools so more workers can return to their jobs — these are some of the next, big steps, said Green, an emergency medicine doctor who serves as Gov. David Ige’s COVID-19 Liaison.
As COVID-19 took root in Hawaii in March, Ige imposed a 14-day quarantine for arriving air passengers in an effort to quash the virus’ spread.
It was Green’s job to craft a program that lets travelers sidestep the quarantine by getting a negative test – not just any test, but a Nucleic Acid Amplification Test conducted by one of more than a dozen “trusted partners” with the state — within 72 hours of departing for Hawaii.
Perhaps most surprising about Hawaii tourism’s new opening day, Green said, was that there were few surprises: few people showing up with the wrong type of test administered by the wrong lab, few glitches with the state’s “Safe Travels” computer platform.
“That’s exactly what’s extraordinary,” he said. “We didn’t have any meltdowns.”
Green outlined a few key things that still need to be done in the next days and weeks:
Directing Airport Traffic
Green said the state expects 8,300 passengers will have come into the state on Thursday. Although Green said that will probably level to 5,000 per day, he said it will be important to make sure the time and gate location of arriving planes is spaced out so that there are no bottlenecks of passengers waiting to get through the screening process when they get off the plane.
Wider Availability of Tests
Hawaii has signed up more than a dozen partners to administer the PCR tests, including CVS, Walgreens, Kaiser Permanente and airlines like Hawaiian, Alaska and United. Green said there are 20 additional partners waiting to sign up, which will make the required tests available for even more people.
“There are labs all over the country that want to do business with us,” he said.
By Monday, Hawaii plans to launch a surveillance screening program for Oahu, Maui and Kauai to find out how many infected people have slipped through cracks. The goal is to test a statistically valid sample of about 10% of the travelers, four days after arrival.
The test will be voluntary and free, Green said.
A question is whether people will volunteer for a second test. The Big Island requires a rapid antigen test upon arrival and Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said on Hawaii News Now Thursday that passengers who refused a test would be arrested.
Although not directly related to the tourism industry, the next big lift involves opening the public schools to in-person classes, Green said.
That’s important to be able to do so parents can return to work. The issue is doing it safely, in a way teacher, parents and students can accept. Frequent and widespread use of rapid antigen tests for screening could help, Green said. But the tests are not yet available in the numbers needed to make such frequent screening feasible.
But he said, “That will come in time, and then we’ll have a vaccine, and everybody will forget how COVID rolled over the world.”
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