In the first full week of Hawaii’s pre-arrival testing program, 86% of the nearly 67,000 people traveling from out of state bypassed quarantine one way or another, but only 63% of arriving travelers had a negative COVID-19 test.
State officials say a quarter of arrivals — or about 15,000 people — between Oct. 15 and 22 had some other exemption, including essential workers, airline crew members or military. That means some of those people may have to quarantine unless they’re going to work.
What’s unclear is if that 15,000 also includes the large number of people who were granted exempt status despite having brought the wrong kind of test results. According to data from the state’s Office of Enterprise Technology Services, about 40% of travelers used unapproved labs, though it’s unclear how many of them were accepted or rejected.
Hawaii gave a four-day grace period for travelers who had some other type of “gold standard” test, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said, but the state wasn’t able to provide details for how many travelers bypassed quarantine that way, or if they are part of the 15,000 travelers in the unspecified exempt category.
Green previously told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser “thousands” who made good-faith efforts were accepted.
State officials say the volume of people arriving with test results from unapproved labs has required staff members to manually review test forms, creating a strain and slowing down the process.
“I think we were surprised by the number of people who didn’t use trusted testing partners,” said Doug Murdock, the state’s chief information officer.
The Safe Travels app’s algorithm is designed to read test forms from trusted partners, so many forms have had to be read manually by staff members who are working through the weekend, he said. The state has since increased the number of people working on this from 25 to 40 to address a backlog of more than 1,300 cases, which is expected to be cleared by Sunday.
Murdock said the state is working with airlines to encourage travelers to check that their tests are valid and from trusted partners before they come to Hawaii.
All in all, the Safe Travels pre-arrival testing program is “actually going extremely well based on what one could hope for,” Green said. The two main goals were to minimize the spread of COVID-19 while resuming more economic activity. “That’s being achieved,” he added.
Post-arrival testing, which is happening in some places, is confirming that, he said. More than 3,000 of Hawaii island’s post-arrival tests on the first day — although they initially returned nine false positives — all returned negative. A micro-batch of 10 results also returned negative four days later.
The Hawaii Department of Health said it was too early to comment on the public health impact of the pre-travel testing program, saying since COVID-19’s incubation can be up to 14 days, it will likely be weeks until any impact can be observed.
Before Oct. 15, the biggest group of people flying in from out of state were returning residents.
Fewer than a hundred people on average came for vacation on a daily basis in the first week of October.
That’s obviously changed now. More people — 40% of arrivals compared with about 5% in the previous week — came for pleasure and vacation during the first week of the pre-arrival testing program.
Of course, more people can’t come without vessels carrying them. There was a spike in the number of scheduled flights on Oct. 15, compared with days prior, according to data from the Hawaii Department of Transportation.
Most of the flights coming in and out of Hawaii airports are still interisland flights though.
The majority of the trans-Pacific flights have been coming from the west coast of the United States, including several cities in California. But economists say it’s hard to know if visitors are from those places, because those airports tend to be hubs.
As more time passes and Hawaii’s research organizations have more time to study the demographics of visitors, the public will know more about the people visiting the islands.
More flights means more money.
For instance, just one Airbus 330 doing daily service in Hawaii can generate $130 million for Hawaii’s economy, $13 million in state taxes and support 1,400 jobs, says Mike McCartney, director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
But COVID-19 has changed the world, McCartney said. It’s created an opportunity for Hawaii to “reset” — even tourism, as people have come to know and rely on it – in a way that’s more respectful and sustainable to the communities, environment and culture.
Although there was a big jump in visitor arrivals starting on Oct. 15, the numbers are still just a fraction of previous years’ figures.
The number of arrivals in the first week of the reopening is only about 22% of what it was during the same time period last year.
The economic recovery is expected to take years, said Eugene Tian, the chief state economist.
“We will continue to do better going into November and December,” he said.
By the end of November, there could be a 30% recovery to pre-pandemic levels, he said, 40% by December and 70% by the end of 2021.
One of the data points he’s looking at is hotel bookings, which have been gradually increasing.
DBEDT calculates daily visitor spending at about $6 million, Tian said. That includes what people may spend on food, hotels and activities.
That’s a smaller estimate than “normal” times because not all of the hotels and activities are open yet, he said. As more resources become available, the spending estimates will also increase.
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