The Big Island’s post-flight testing program will be scaled back today because after weeks of testing, only a handful of the thousands of travelers to the island have tested positive for COVID-19.
On Oct. 15, Hawaii County implemented a program allowing travelers arriving on the island to skip a two-week quarantine with negative COVID test results taken both before and immediately after arrival. As of Monday, 12,636 post-flight tests had been conducted on the island, with less than 1% of those testing positive, said Mayor Harry Kim.
As of Monday, Kim said, 97 post-flight antigen tests returned positive results since Oct. 15. Those 97 travelers were immediately subjected to a second test — a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, considered more accurate than the antigen tests — which Kim said only returned 17 positives.
Kim noted that the 17 positive results out of more than 12,000 tests is an encouraging sign, but added the value of the program is its ability to generate a statistical model of the spread of COVID-19 among incoming travelers, which also can be generated by testing fewer people post-arrival.
That approach will be used at Ellison Onizuka International Airport in Kona starting today. Up to 25% of travelers arriving at the airport will be given the post-flight antigen test, Kim said, with those who test positive similarly subject to a PCR test, as they are now.
How the 25% of arrivals will be selected remained unclear Thursday, but Kim said the process will not be voluntary.
The mayor said the county Corporation Counsel is working on how to select those who will be tested — adding that he does not want to split up visiting families by testing one family member but not others.
However, Kim noted that state law prohibits conducting tests on people at random, so attorneys are investigating how to legally select a representative sample.
“I don’t drink, but they tell me that it’s the same principle as pulling over random cars for a DUI test,” Kim said. “They’re not allowed to just pick cars at random, but they could pick, say, every 10th car or something like that.”
The post-arrival program will remain unchanged at Hilo International Airport. Kim said the airport has only accounted for about 10% of all post-flight tests so far, and is therefore much easier and less costly to maintain.
“It’s helpful to have a place where we’re still getting statistics on 100% of arrivals,” Kim said.
Kim said the program could not have continued for much longer in Kona in any case. The financial and logistical costs as well as the amount of manpower required for the program were unsustainable, he said, and the Kona testing site had to be moved to a smaller location for unrelated reasons.
While Kim did not discount the possibility of re-implementing the program if case numbers on the island increase — an ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases on the mainland could lead to more infected travelers — he said the possible threshold for doing so has not yet been decided.
“There’s one way that’s better than anything else to keep the case numbers down,” Kim said. “And that’s: Follow the rules and keep everyone safe.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.