Plans to Lift Interisland Travel Quarantine Underway

May 21, 2020, 2:37 PM HST (Updated May 21, 2020, 2:39 PM)
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airplane PC:pixabay may 2019

Interisland travel is the next monumental item on the state’s coronavirus to-do list.

The question of when interisland travel will be readily available again isn’t just one of freedom of movement or commerce, it’s also one of connectivity and family.

While Gov. David Ige didn’t have a precise answer to that question Thursday — at least not in the form of a target date to lift the 14-day interisland travel quarantine — the matter is now front and center as the next significant development to returning to some semblance of normal life in Hawai‘i.

“My office has received many calls from individuals who want to know when (the quarantine will be) lifted,” Ige said. “I know some of you want us to lif the quarantine right away, but this is a major step in reopening our economy. … No plan is perfect, and we anticipate an increase in COVID-19 cases when we lift the quarantine.”

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Favorable Conditions

Hawai‘i has achieved what top government officials see as the necessary goals in almost every required metric to allow the travel quarantine to be lifted. The state reported four new cases of COVID-19 Thursday. Lieutenant Governor Josh Green said only 68 cases of the virus have been identified across all islands over the last month, including just 21 over the previous two weeks.

Due to a lack of elective procedures, hospital occupancy overall is hovering around 50%, which Green characterized as a historic low in Hawai‘i. Intensive care beds are just 39% occupied and only 9% of the state’s ventilators are in use — all of which adds up to the Hawai‘i healthcare system being prepared for any kind of surge.

Personal protective equipment is adequately stocked, and not just for healthcare workers but for airport screeners and first responders, Green continued. The state’s coronavirus mortality rate remains the lowest in the nation at 1.2 people per 100,000 residents, with 17 total virus-related deaths reported and none over the last two weeks.

A contact-tracing program — developed via a partnership between the Hawai‘i Department of Health and the University of Hawai‘i — will supplement the state with between 100 and 300 new contact-tracers as necessary, DOH Director Bruce Anderson said.

COVID-19 testing capacity has increased statewide from five labs to 11 labs, with testing laboratories now situated in all four Hawai‘i counties. Those healthcare professionals qualified to conduct testing have increased from 68 people to 135 people over the last two weeks, and so the average number of daily tests have also risen during that time from 418 tests per day to 691 tests per day. The maximum daily testing capacity has grown from roughly 3,000 to 3,600. Anderson said that it will soon increase to 5,000 or more tests per day.

“All of these indicators tell us we are able to move forward … economically,” Green said. “We all know that interisland travel is like our highway (system). But I will tell you that it’s not just an economic consideration we’re making. We’re also making a human consideration.”

Green mentioned a family that has spread its roots across all islands over generations and recently lost a young member of their family to a car accident. He cited end-of-life visitations, necessary medical procedures, standard business practices for several industries and the ability to connect with loved ones as reasons why lifting the interisland travel quarantine is now a priority.

The economic consequences are also beginning to reveal themselves more obviously, as a popular Big Island cafe and a well-known Kailua-Kona gift shop both announced this week they would not be reopening.

Planning Phase

Planning for the inevitable end to interisland travel restrictions is underway. Ultimately, the state needs to develop a new, health-focused traveling process that will include airport screening, testing and contact-tracing before it can move forward.

The governor said Thursday that his team hoped to have a plan finalized “shortly” and would be providing regular updates.

Tim Sakahara, a spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation, said temperature screenings at airports would continue through any rollback of the interisland travel quarantine. The department hopes to set up a pilot project on enhanced thermal screening in the next 30 to 60 days.

While thermal screening only identifies between 70% and 80% of those with acute COVID-19 infections, according to Anderson, it’s a necessary component of any travel quarantine rollback.

Those who are found to have a high temperature or show any other symptoms of the coronavirus will be subjected to further screening and sent to a physician or an emergency room as necessary.

Interisland travelers are already required to complete a travel document, but the current version will be replaced with a more thorough list of contact and health information. The new form is not yet finalized, Sakahara said.

Anderson added that the new form will ensure state travel and health officials have “a very thorough travel history and document where (any traveler) will be going.”

Travel quarantines would still apply to interisland travelers who arrive from outside the state if they intend to move from one island to the next within two weeks of arrival to Hawai‘i.

National Guard members are currently helping with the screening process at airports, and discussions are underway about who would replace them in their capacities should they be deactivated or called away to different duties.

Max Dible
Max Dible is a reporter for Big Island Now. He will also serve in a news capacity for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter and radio talk show personality with the Iowa State Daily and KURE 88.5 FM, respectively, in Ames, Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing and his work as a sports columnist.
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