Post-arrival testing to ramp up in Kona

  • KIM

Starting Wednesday, all trans-Pacific travelers who took a pre-boarding COVID-19 test also will be given a rapid-result antigen test upon arrival at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole, Mayor Harry Kim said Monday.

Speaking to the state House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, Kim said the post-arrival testing program would be reinstated in full after the state allotted the county the space at Kona airport needed to test all arrivals.

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Previously, 100% of nonexempt trans-Pacific travelers were being tested after arriving in Kona, but Kim early last month reduced that number to 25% due to a lack of space.

Hilo International Airport was unaffected by the cut, and all nonexempt trans-Pacific arrivals continue to be tested.

In Kona, those who arrive with a negative test from a trusted testing partner and then pass the antigen test will be allowed to bypass a 14-day travel quarantine. Those who test positive on the antigen test will then be required to take a more reliable polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test, on the spot.

PCR test recipients are required to quarantine until a negative result is received. Those who receive a positive PCR test will be required to quarantine for 14 days.

The state’s Safe Travels program, as well as Kim’s post-arrival test requirement, have been in effect since Oct. 15, and the mayor said despite continued low COVID-19 case numbers in Hawaii, rising infection rates on the mainland are showing up on arrival test results.

“In the month of November … 43 people have tested positive on the second PCRs,” Kim told the panel. ”Please bear in mind, in the month of October, where we had two weeks (of testing), we had nine. … And from Nov. 6, we’re only testing 25%.”

Kim announced on Saturday that trans-Pacific travelers who arrive in Hawaii County without a negative COVID-19 test must quarantine for 14 days.

His rule, which mirrors one announced more than a week earlier by Gov. David Ige, was by approved by Ige and is expected to remain in effect through Dec. 31.

Trans-Pacific travelers awaiting test results previously were only required to quarantine until negative test results arrived.

Kim, whose term in office ends at noon next Monday with the inauguration of Mayor-elect Mitch Roth, told the committee he favors a pre-testing policy of “if you’re not cleared, you’re not allowed to board a plane” to Hawaii.

“I don’t think anybody denies that what is happening on the mainland is more than frightening … and we know where most of the guests will be coming from,” Kim said. “… Because of our testing procedures, we test more people per capita than anyplace else in the state.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Monday, Hawaii had the lowest average number of new cases per capita, with 5.9 average daily cases per 100,000 population in the previous seven days.

All four county mayors addressed the House committee Monday , although Ige declined their invitation and instead appeared on a livestream with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (see related story).

Ige’s tightening of the Safe Travels program on Nov. 24, two days before Thanksgiving, took lawmakers and tourism industry officials by surprise, saying they had a stake but hadn’t been consulted prior to his announcement.

Ige also approved a request by Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami to exclude Kauai from participation in the Safe Travels program. Travelers to Kauai must spend 14 days in quarantine regardless of whether they obtain a negative COVID-19 test.

The policy is expected to take effect Dec. 2.

Kauai, which reported three new COVID-19 cases throughout the entire month of September, has seen a significant spike in cases since the middle of October, when the Safe Travels program went into effect.

The committee released a paper on Monday titled “Proposal to Modify the Safe Travels Hawaii Program.” The paper described the pre-travel testing program as “an unqualified success.”

According to the document, between Oct. 11 and Nov. 27, the average number of new cases a day statewide decreased from 96.7 to 94.6, test positivity rates declined from 2.8% to 2%, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients decreased from 103 to 60, and the percentage of intensive care unit beds occupied dropped from 53% to 46%.

The paper also touted the program’s economic benefits, stating that since the launch of the program, “nearly 230,000 visitors arrived in the islands compared with just 31,000 in the six weeks prior to the program.”

The document said those visitors “directly contributed to the return of more than 28,000 workers to the labor force and employment statewide,” including more than 3,000 on the Big Island. It added the visitors are likely to contribute $250 million to the state’s economy.

The paper said that the imposition of a 14-day mandatory quarantine on those who have submitted to pre-travel testing but didn’t receive results prior to boarding for Hawaii “has had unintended and unfortunate consequences already.”

Those consequences include “confusion and uncertainty amongst travelers, resulting in 300-2,000 room night cancellations per (hotel) resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue and the staffing downsizing that accompanies market contraction just in the last week.”

Acknowledging the spike in mainland COVID-19 cases, the paper proposes a compromise solution, saying travelers who have complied with the pre-travel testing requirements but didn’t receive results prior to departing for their final leg of a Hawaii trip should be required to submit to a rapid test upon arrival in Hawaii.

The document proposes that who test negative upon arrival in Hawaii would be required to quarantine until receipt of a negative pre-travel test result from a trusted partner.

Under the paper’s proposed changes, those whose pre-travel test results return positive would be subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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

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