It was all hands on deck Friday at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, the second day of rapid testing for trans-Pacific arrivals.
Thursday was the first day the state welcomed mainland visitors without a required 14-day quarantine as long as passengers could show a 72-hour preflight negative COVID-19 test. On Hawaii Island, an additional rapid test was required before travelers could leave the airport without having to quarantine.
On Thursday, a total of 8,219 people arrived in Hawaii from out of state after the Safe Travels Hawaii program launched, including 1,200 in Kona and over 100 in Hilo. The program gives travelers an option of taking a COVID-19 test, and if given a negative result, allows them to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine.
By most accounts, the first day did not go as planned, with people waiting as long as 4.5 hours to be tested and receive results.
Two travelers from California had not received their test results when they landed in Kona on Thursday. They were told to quarantine until they received their results, which they did later in the evening. Even though they had negative results, they could not navigate the system and were told to return to the airport on Friday.
“There just wasn’t enough staff. Who is in control of this? Whoever it is, they didn’t think this through,” said the visitor, who did not want to be identified as she waited for someone to help her. “The experience was very harrowing.”
Airport and Hawaii County staff made adjustments Friday, and the process was somewhat streamlined.
All travelers need to create an account with the state’s Safe Travels program before arriving. Once all of their information is entered into the system, passengers receive a QR (quick response) code.
After deplaning, travelers went through thermal temperature screening monitored by the National Guard. Then, passengers proceeded to the Safe Travel checkpoint where their QR code is checked.
For interisland flights, passengers were separated. Trans-Pacific arrivals sent for a rapid test while those traveling within the state were ordered to quarantine, per Mayor Harry Kim’s most recent rules.
A line of passengers snaked through the new Transportation Security Administration area Friday afternoon. There, each person’s information was manually recorded and a rapid test administered at one of four stations. Passengers were sent to a “holding pen” until results were available.
“It’s running much smoother today,” Kim’s executive assistant, Maurice Messina, said Friday. “We appreciate everyone’s patience.
Messina said he understood the frustration on the first day of testing.
“We developed better strategies,” he said. “We have DPW (the Department of Public Works) setting up more tents to keep people out of the sun.”
Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation staff were also called to assist in gathering pre-test information.
United Airlines Kona General Manager Charlene Goo said more medical personnel were needed to expedite the process.
“They just can’t do the test and turn it around fast enough,” said Goo. “Airports Division is trying their best, but the county should have thought through the process.”
Dr. Scott Miscovich, president of Premier Medical Group, which is performing the rapid tests, said the testing program ran much smoother on Friday.
“We are very pleased. We just had to make a few adjustments yesterday,” he said. “We probably reduced our wait time to a maximum of one hour when we had four planes coming in at the same time.”
Friday afternoon, travelers were getting through the process within 30 minutes. Miscovich said staffing will be increased to further expedite testing to get people on their way.
“For something set up on the fly, it’s about as good as it can be,” said Department of Transportation Airports Division Hawaii District Manager Chauncey Wong Yuen. “This is an outdoor airport. We have to make it work. Leadership had a tough decision to open up the economy and protect out citizens. We feel obligated to balance that.”
With an expected 1,200 passengers arriving Friday, Wong Yuen was confident the wait time would be cut in half.
“We learned from yesterday and have improved drastically,” he said.
Arriving passenger Celia McDonald said the process was relatively smooth on Friday.
“Everyone was pleasant and nice. The test was not too bad,” she said, estimating she waited about an hour in line and an additional 40 minutes to receive the rapid test result. “They just need to put in vending machines in the line. I was starving.”