DOH: Don’t be alarmed by tests

A patient in isolation at Hilo Medical Center, one of three in the state under investigation Tuesday for possible COVID-19, has tested negative for the disease.

Hospital spokeswoman Elena Cabatu said the patient came in “a few days ago” off of a cruise ship and was sick.

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Out of an abundance of caution, “we decided to admit (the individual) and go through the protocols,” she told the Tribune-Herald Tuesday.

Cabatu said later that the state Department of Health had confirmed the test came back negative for the recently identified coronavirus, and that the patient will continue to be treated for a respiratory illness until he or she is ready to be discharged.

The state COVID-19 Joint Information Center confirmed that all three tests submitted Tuesday came back negative.

Arthur Sampaga Jr., chief nursing officer at HMC, said the hospital’s staff is tracking the “rapidly evolving situation” daily with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the DOH, county Civil Defense, and the World Health Organization, “using their guidance and direction to update and modify our current protocols that we have in place in regard to any pandemic-type situation.”

Chief Medical Officer Jon Martell said when the individual arrived at HMC, the protocol for suspected virus cases was followed rapidly — the patient was masked and placed in the proper setting, and with employees in protective gear.

“The chain of isolation has been unbroken on this patient, even if this test does turn out to be positive,” he said Tuesday before the test results were confirmed.

In terms of protocol, Martell said every patient and visitor coming into the HMC Emergency Department is screened at the door following DOH recommendations for who might be considered a “person under investigation.”

A person under investigation means the individuals meet the CDC’s criteria for investigation and testing.

Those who fall under that criteria are given a mask immediately and escorted to a negative pressure room.

Martell said the only thing that has changed in regard to protocol is the guideline for who might be considered under investigation.

State Health Director Bruce Anderson said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon that the three individuals under investigation were on the Big Island, Maui and Oahu.

“We actually were able to, in a few hours, get the results back … . So that’s a huge advantage for us,” he said. “Normally, it would take a week or so to send a sample to Centers for Disease Control and get the results back.”

The DOH on Friday announced its ability to test for the virus in Hawaii. Prior to Friday, all laboratory testing to confirm COVID-19 had to be completed at the CDC in Atlanta.

In the past, Anderson said testing was limited to people who might have been exposed in China or those exposed to an existing case.

“That’s now been expanded dramatically, and we do expect a lot more testing to occur as a result,” he said. “The disease is now known to be widespread in other countries. Iran, Iraq, Japan, South Korea and Italy are all areas where the disease is circulating and places where we should be concerned if people are going and coming back and becoming ill. So we can now test individuals who have been exposed in those areas as well as China, of course.”

The state also can test people who have respiratory illnesses of unknown origins when other conditions have been ruled out.

Anderson said any positive results will have to be sent to the CDC for confirmation, but state health officials will assume a positive result is such and act accordingly.

“But at least now, we have a presumptive diagnosis or test that we can use to take action more quickly than we could before.”

As testing criteria expand, the number of people under investigation will grow, Anderson said, “so don’t be alarmed. It doesn’t mean we’re seeing a lot more disease here. It means we’re doing more tests, and there are more people under investigation because of this expanded criteria.”

According to Anderson, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now allowing private labs to do testing for the virus.

“So we will be looking at that possibility in the future, and again that will dramatically expand the testing,” he said, adding that the DOH does not charge for the test.

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Edward Desmond, administrator of the State Laboratories Division, said the state has the capacity to test up to 250 samples a week.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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