HCCC outbreak, lifting of interisland restrictions prompts free testing

  • Kai Kubera closes his eyes while being tested for COVID-19 on May 12 by Marlon Simmons at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo. (KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald file)

Hawaii County will offer a free, short-term COVID-19 testing program in the wake of an ongoing outbreak at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo.

Testing will start from 3-6 p.m. today at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo.

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Tests also will be administered June 19, 23 and 26 in the upper parking lot of Waiakea High School, with times to be announced.

The decision to offer the testing was based on the number of positive cases among HCCC staff and the continued possibility of community spread, the overall increase in visitor arrivals, the lifting of interisland flight restrictions on Tuesday, and the increased number of social gatherings due to graduation and other summer activities, the county said in a news release Tuesday.

“At this time, we feel that setting up a testing program is the best way for us to gather data to ensure that our communities remain protected,” Mayor Mitch Roth said in the release. “We are slowly beginning our return to normalcy, and ensuring that we don’t trip at the finish line is our number one priority.

“We would also like to remind residents that with the new variants becoming prevalent in the community that it is truly our kuleana to get vaccinated to keep our community healthy, happy and safe as we begin our recovery towards a thriving Hawaii Island.”

Cyrus Johnasen, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a phone interview that the county feels the four testing dates will be adequate to gather the amount of data necessary amid the HCCC cluster and opening of interisland travel.

Testing and vaccinations also will be made available to HCCC staff and families upon request.

More than 200 HCCC inmates and nearly 20 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus since late May.

According to the state Department of Public Safety, there were 124 active inmate cases and seven active staff cases at the Hilo jail as of Monday.

Meanwhile, 79 inmates and 13 staff have recovered.

A DPS spokeswoman said no new results were received Tuesday.

Johnasen said there has been “an instance or two” of virus spread from a jail employee to their direct family members, but no community spread beyond immediate family has been confirmed.

That’s in due in part of contact tracing efforts of Hawaii County Civil Defense, DPS and the state Department of Health, he said.

When asked whether county leaders had concerns about the virus spreading now that interisland travel restrictions have been lifted, Johnasen said, “I think that we definitely want to remain vigilant, which is why we have added these testing dates to make sure we are able to track the data in the community as best as possible so that we can keep our community safe.”

The state Department of Health on Tuesday reported 37 new cases of COVID-19 statewide, including eight new cases on Hawaii Island.

Hawaii County has a 3.3% test positivity rate, the highest in the state. The positivity rate statewide is 1%.

Nearly 1.62 million vaccine doses have been administered statewide.

According to the DOH, 55% of the state’s population have completed a vaccine series, while 61% have received at least one dose.

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On the Big Island, 47% of all residents have been fully vaccinated, and 58% have received at least one dose.

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

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