State unveils ‘proactive’ testing for coronavirus

  • David Ige

State health officials on Tuesday announced the launch of a COVID-19 “surveillance testing program” that will help identify cases of community spread of the disease — cases that cannot be traced back to a traveler or contact with an individual with the coronavirus.

“I’m proud to be able to unveil a new program that takes the state’s COVID-19 testing (from) just reacting to potential cases to allow us to be preventive and mitigate spread of COVID-19, if it should occur in our community,” Gov. David Ige said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

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Ige said there have been indications in other states the disease, which has infected more than 118,000 people since it was first detected in China in late December, has been circulating in communities prior to cases being confirmed.

“This program would allow us to identify if there is COVID-19 spreading in our community,” Ige said.

The state has been working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for several weeks to develop the program.

“The Department of Health, in partnership with the CDC, will be focused on surveillance starting this week to understand if and when community spread of COVID-19 is present in Hawaii,” Ige said. “It also will help us understand the scope and burden of such spread when it does occur. So we’re certainly excited that our ability to test for COVID-19 samples here in the state allows us to upgrade the program to this community sentinel testing program.”

State Health Director Bruce Anderson said there’s been concern that the DOH is only focused on individuals with serious illness, while there could be others in the community who are less ill and spreading the disease.

“We hear that concern, and this program is actually intended to focus on those who we may not know about — people who haven’t come to our attention … because they didn’t have serious illness or meet the criteria that we were required to use in earlier testing programs,” he said.

According to a DOH news release, about 200 COVID-19 tests will be conducted each week under the new program.

Samples collected for flu testing from patients with respiratory symptoms will be randomly selected and tested for the coronavirus.

The samples will be collected by health care providers in doctor’s offices and outpatient facilities, and the information will help officials understand the scope of such a spread when it happens, the DOH said.

Tests will be conducted by the DOH’s State Laboratories Division in Pearl City, Oahu, will enable the state to identify and notify individuals who test positive, and take additional steps to try and stop the spread of the virus, the DOH release states.

In the event of a positive test result, the DOH will contact the health care provider and patient, and provide further guidance.

According to the DOH, the State Laboratories Division is expected to receive up to 400 samples per week from participating providers, but will randomly select 200 for COVID-19 testing.

Samples involve taking swabs from the back of the nose or throat of patients exhibiting flu-like symptoms, such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath, which also are symptoms of COVID-19.

Anderson said these will be individuals who have tested negative for the flu but might be carrying the coronavirus.

The surveillance testing is being done in addition to testing already being done for individuals under investigation for COVID-19.

“I might add, we’re only one of a few states that has this program now in place,” Anderson said. “A handful of others are going down this path, but it’s been a huge issue across the country — that is, knowing where this virus is circulating, because we know it’s popped up in Washington state, New York and many other places, and it probably was circulating in those communities for quite a while before it was identified through case investigations. So I think this is a good proactive way to go, and I’m very pleased, as is the governor, that we’re taking this step, and it should be very helpful to us in controlling better this disease.”

At the start of Tuesday’s news conference, Ige also addressed media reports of an individual who suspected they had the disease but was denied testing in early February.

The governor said that testing was denied because Hawaii didn’t have the ability to do so, and that the case did not meet criteria set forth by the CDC for testing at that time.

“Just really wanted to be clear that if … the scenario presented in the media today happened today, they would be tested, clearly,” Ige said.

Ige said any patients who are symptomatic should contact their doctors. Physicians have clear guidelines and criteria for ordering COVID-19 tests.

“If the patients meets all of the requirements, every physician request for a patient that meets the requirements will get tested here in the state.”

Two people in Hawaii have tested positive for COVID-19.

The case was announced March 6 in an individual who was a passenger on the Grand Princess cruise to Mexico from Feb. 11-21. The individual, who traveled to Honolulu from Mexico, became ill on March 1 and is currently isolated at home and being monitored daily by the DOH, COVID-19 Joint Information Center.

The second positive test result was for an elderly adult who is hospitalized in serious condition on Oahu. The individual fell ill on March 2 in Washington state and traveled home to Honolulu on March 4, the Joint Information Center said.

Trace back investigations are being done but information is still being gathered.

A second subsequent cruise aboard the Grand Princess, including dozens of passengers who also sailed on the initial Mexican voyage, visited four stops in Hawaii late last month.

To date, there have been 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among crew and passengers on that voyage. Additional testing is pending.

According to the Joint Information Center, the exposure risk to tour operators and other hospitality services who interact with cruise ship visitors is low, but companies should work to determine which specific employees had personal, face-to-face contact for more than 10 minutes with passengers.

As of Tuesday, 22 people under investigation in Hawaii have tested negative for the virus, and two tests are pending.

There are currently no individuals on the Big Island who are self-monitoring with supervision from the DOH.

Those with general questions about COVID-19 should call 211 or text 877-275-6569.

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For the latest information on COVID-19 in Hawaii, visit hawaii.gov/covid19.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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