Big Island Coronavirus Updates

Big Island to Change Pre-Travel Testing Model, Administer Fewer Second Tests

November 4, 2020, 5:27 PM HST
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Photo by Josh Pacheco.

Hawai‘i County will transition away from its pre-travel testing model, through which all travelers are tested twice, once on the mainland and once upon their arrival to the Big Island.

The change could go into effect as early as this weekend.

Mayor-Elect Mitch Roth told Big Island Now early Wednesday morning that he’d heard rumblings the administration was considering a transition away from the current model of testing trans-Pacific travelers. On Wednesday afternoon, sitting Mayor Harry Kim confirmed the information, adding that Hawai‘i County will instead test 20% of all incoming travelers. He’s waiting only for the attorneys to clear the change with the state, which authorized the testing system and must be part of the transition process.

“The number one reason is a drain on the resources financially because that’s a huge sum of money. If it weren’t for federal funds, we wouldn’t even be able to do it,” Kim said. “Then there is the physical and mental drain on the staff.”

Costs for the two-tiered testing program mounted to the neighborhood of $75,000 per day over its roughly three-week lifespan, while Civil Defense workers were tasked with reporting to airports in Hilo and Kailua-Kona from morning until night in order to capture all incoming travelers.

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Both airports had begun to note persistent issues with the physical spaces the program was using, and a reworking of logistics would have proven necessary had the testing continued on absent any changes, Kim said.

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The new plan, which will cost less and be easier on employees, will seek daily blocks of time during which access to at least 20% of travelers will be feasible. The system will work the same way the old system did. All passengers will be tested on the mainland. Upon arrival to the Big Island, they will deplane and staff will administer a rapid antigen test that takes 20 minutes to turn around. If the passenger is negative for COVID-19, he or she is free to go. If the test is positive, the passenger will then take a PCR test and quarantine for 24-48 hours until the results are returned.

Data collected will be shared with Gov. David Ige and various state department heads, as well as Lt. Gov. Josh Green, to help gather a sense of how many positive coronavirus cases are slipping through the cracks — information Green has said in the past will be vital to future policy decisions as they regard tourism, Hawai‘i’s economy, and testing protocol.

Testing began on Oct. 15. Kim said that eight positive PCR tests were confirmed throughout the second half of the month. He said four have already been confirmed through the first three days of November.

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Kim acknowledged the transition will leave the county more open to outside infection from the virus, but added the Big Island’s program is still the strongest of any statewide, even at 20% capacity. No other county has mandated a second COVID test upon arrival at any point since trans-Pacific travel returned 20 days ago.

“You need good databases and a good watchdog system so you can know when something happens and act on it,” Kim said.

He added that he will search for funding that will allow him to keep up with testing supplies and increase staff in the hopes of testing more than one-in-five passenger arrivals in the future, potentially even achieving a return to 100% capacity.

That goal appears unlikely, however, as Kim will vacate the Mayor’s Office in December, making way for former Hawai‘i County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth, who beat Ikaika Marzo last evening in the race for the job.

Kim said he spoke with Roth Wednesday morning, letting him know the staff was at his disposal and that department heads had begun prepping for the transition.

“We’re going to emphasize what we do and why we are doing it,” Kim said.

In an interview with BIN a little after midnight Wednesday, Roth stayed away from committing to hardline policy changes from what was done under Kim’s administration, saying only that he would work to be more transparent than his predecessor.

“We want to make is to make sure that our communication is a little clearer and we’re a little bit more transparent about what we’re doing,” continued Roth, specifically referencing the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Kim’s part, transparency has been less the issue than the occasional spot of confusion. However, the mayor said much of the confusion that isn’t due to the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis is a problem that resides mostly with state leadership’s decisions.

“What I regret is that I did not push harder for the importance of a central command (at a state level). Then you wouldn’t have had this confusion,” Kim said. “I told the governor and Dr. Park at the time, ‘What’s the difference between this (pandemic) and a hurricane?’ You can’t let each county make their own system when something impacts the whole state. Certain things should be centralized. I felt this should be centralized, and I still feel that. Interisland travel, facemasks, all that should be centralized.”

Kim said he will look back on his handling of the pandemic proud of several initiatives.

The mayor said it was Hawai‘i County that first declared a state of emergency around the coronavirus, even before the governor. It was Hawai‘i County that first pressed the University of Hawai‘i to take its fall semester exclusively online. It was Mayor Kim who first suggested early on in the tragedy at the Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home in Hilo that leadership be transferred over to the state hospital system. And it was the Big Island, and only the Big Island, that ever implemented a mandatory COVID-19 test upon arrival once trans-Pacific travel resumed in force.

“The only thing I regret, I should have pushed harder,” Kim said.

“We can control this and be on top of this if we all obey the policies of wearing facemasks, social distancing, and (limiting) gatherings,” said Kim, making an urgent plea to his soon-to-be former constituents. “(COVID) does not have to cause this kind of tragedy.”

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