State tightens pre-arrival COVID-19 testing program for trans-Pacific travelers

  • IGE

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A COVID-19 tester with S&G Labs asks a car to pull up during free drive-through testing Wednesday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo.

Starting Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, trans-Pacific arrivals in Hawaii must have a negative COVID-19 test result from a trusted testing partner prior to departure to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

This tightening of the state’s pre-arrival testing program applies to arriving passengers from the mainland U.S. and international travelers. If test results aren’t available before boarding the final leg of a Hawaii-bound trip, the traveler must quarantine for 14 days or the length of the stay, whichever is shorter.

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Previously, those who were tested prior to departure but hadn’t received results were subject to quarantine, but were released from quarantine upon the confirmation of a negative result.

“We’re adding this safety precaution now in response to the dramatically increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the continental United States and around the world,” said Gov. David Ige during a Thursday press conference. “… The health of our residents and visitors is our primary concern, especially as more people travel to Hawaii to celebrate the holidays.”

For example, Illinois on Thursday reported 14,612 new COVID-19 cases and 168 deaths, the largest one-day coronavirus-related death total since the spring surge of the virus in May, and the third-highest number of fatalities in a 24-hour period since the start of the pandemic.

By comparison, Hawaii, which has less than a 10th of Illinois’ population, reported 107 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, with 12 of those on the Big Island, and has reported 223 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

Ige said 94% of travelers participating in Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program arrive with their test results either in hand or uploaded to the state’s Safe Travels online app.

“At least 44 travelers who took the pre-travel test … got a positive result upon arrival or a day or two later,” Ige said. “It isn’t a large number, but it’s enough to change the policy.”

Ige also announced that beginning in mid-December, travelers flying from Canada to Hawaii may bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine if they take a COVID-19 test from labs identified by Air Canada and WestJet.

The test must be taken within 72 hours of travel to Hawaii, and a negative test result must be received prior to departure.

Travelers without proof of a negative test result prior to boarding their flight to Hawaii will be required to self-quarantine for 14-days or the length of stay, whichever is shorter.

“Many Canadians love to visit Hawaii during the winter months to escape the cold weather, so the timing for this works well,” Ige said. “… Canada is the second-largest international market to Hawaii, so their commitment to safe travel to our islands is an important next step.”

Canadian visitors to Hawaii will still have to quarantine for 14 days upon their return.

Angela Avery, a WestJet vice president, said there is a pilot program at Calgary International Airport, in the province of Alberta, where returnees can be tested upon arrival “and the quarantines can be substantially reduced.”

“I can even speak to it, personally,” Avery said. “I flew to the U.S. last weekend, and on my return, was tested at the airport. And the quarantine was effectively lifted less than 48 hours later.”

All of the direct flights from Canada will arrive either at Daniel K. Inouye Honolulu International Airport or Kahului Airport on Maui, at least at first.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that on Wednesday, 8,879 people arrived in Hawaii from out of state.

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A total of 4,527 people indicated they came to Hawaii for vacation. There also were 1,192 returning residents. Of those arriving passengers, 1,006 touched down at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. Of those arriving in Kona, 577 said they were on the Big Island to vacation and 109 were returning residents.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.