Big Island Coronavirus Updates

Funding For Airport COVID Testing in Jeopardy; Mayor-Elect Details Possible Changes

December 2, 2020, 5:43 PM HST
* Updated December 2, 5:56 PM
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Thermal Screening Equipment installed at airports. PC: HDOT

A new mayor will take the helm in Hawai‘i County on Monday. Likely accompanying his arrival will be substantial changes to COVID testing policies at Big Island airports, though those adjustments will be more a result of timing than political philosophy.

Mayor-Elect Mitch Roth on Wednesday made three critical points in an interview with Big Island Now as to what travel testing will look like moving forward:

  • Funding for COVID-19 testing of trans-Pacific and interisland arrivals to the Big Island is likely to decrease sharply in December, meaning changes to current policies could prove imminent in the short-term.
  • The Big Island will not go the way of Kaua‘i and seek removal, temporary or otherwise, from the state’s Safe Travels Hawai‘i Program, which allows for quarantine exemption with a negative coronavirus test.
  • While it’s a decision left to Governor David Ige, Roth will advocate for a change in policy that allows people to take their pre-travel tests within 96 hours of departure rather than 72.

“There’s a lot to look at,” Roth said. “Where’s the money going to be to continue testing? That’s kind of an unknown.”

Federal CARES Act funding dissipates at the end of the month. Crucial funding for personnel costs and temporary positions ends on Dec. 15.

Currently, between 25% and 100% percent of those arriving at Big Island airports are receiving rapid antigen tests as part of the county’s program but that may not last, at least not in the short-term.

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Mayor Harry Kim initially endeavored to test everyone who arrived by plane to the Big Island, but budget, personnel, and logistical constraints forced him to scale back to around 20% after just three weeks.

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As of Tuesday afternoon, COVID testing operations moved to different sectors of the airports, allowing for testing to ramp back up. When the trans-Pacific testing began in October on the Big Island, costs soared to around $75,000 per day. Mayor-Elect Roth said those daily costs are now down to $10,000 to $15,000.

Even with decreased overhead and major logistical issues resolved, Roth said the price of personnel will be the key issue.

“That’s a big question about what funds we’re going to have for county positions after the 15th (of December),” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to have very many funds, so it’s definitely going to have to be looked at.”

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The Mayor-Elect added that he wasn’t sure how close airport testers were to reaching their 100% passenger test goal, but that the operation was impressive and organized upon his visit Tuesday.

He did not provide details as to how testers would choose test subjects if testing everyone was not possible, or if people would be tested on a volunteer basis. The primary reason all arrivals may not be tested on a given day would be a lack of necessary personnel to carry out that monumental task, Roth surmised.

Mayor-Elect Mitch Roth.

The county will seek talks with private funding concerns to bolster testing operations as it waits on the federal government to pass more coronavirus-related aid. Roth said the Hawai‘i delegation is pressing for more funding, including some monies to bypass state control and be distributed directly at the county level.

While Democrats and Republicans in Washington have been gridlocked over what became politicized aid package discussions during the presidential election, a bipartisan proposal of $908 billion was officially backed on Tuesday by Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. The package was also supported publicly by President-Elect Joe Biden, who encouraged Congress to pass a bill now and move to supply complementary aid down the line.

“There is talk that things could happen right away, which could affect what’s happening at our airports,” Roth explained. “Maybe we’re good for a while. On the 15th, if there are no funds to go forward, there probably will be changes in what we’re doing.”

“We do know that the Roberts Hawai‘i people who are at the airports checking to make sure tests come in, (they are) being paid by the state,” he added. “That goes on until June. The state may also have funds to help with additional testing.”

Quarantine and Exemptions

Governor David Ige is the final authority on quarantine policy throughout the state, but mayors have meaningful input as to what happens on their islands — highlighted when the governor allowed Kaua‘i Mayor Derek Kawakami to temporarily pull his island out of the Safe Travels Program and require a 14-day quarantine for all arrivals without exception.

“I don’t believe we’re going to take the same path they took on Kaua‘i,” Mayor-Elect Roth said of his intentions for the Big Island upon assuming office Dec. 7, 2020.

As Kaua‘i left the travel program this week, the Hawai‘i House of Representatives Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness sent a letter to state and county executive leadership proposing the governor roll back a recently imposed travel restriction.

COVID-19 testing at North Hawai’i Community Hospital. (PC: Lynn Scully, NHCH)

On Nov. 24, Ige changed the Safe Travels Program to require all travelers to produce the results of their COVID tests before departing on the last legs of their journeys to Hawai‘i or face mandatory quarantine. The previous paradigm only required that tests be taken within 72 hours of departure. If they were not returned by the time of arrival, travelers could move about freely until the results were in. If those results proved positive then quarantine was enforced.

The governor has yet to respond publicly to the Committee’s proposal. Roth said once he takes office, he will advocate for a separate proposal that allows for more lead time on pre-travel testing.

“I’d actually like to see us go from 72 hours to 96 hours for the test,” he explained. ” I’m hearing from a lot of people about the difficulty of getting the test results back in a reasonable amount of time.”

“There are questions I still need to ask, answers I need to get,” Roth continued. “We’ve talked to people at the CDC.”

The Mayor-Elect added that safety is his top priority, but not just static safety. Getting people back to work safely and opening up the economy safely are joint goals he believes can be accomplished under his administration.

Roth on Wednesday stressed a focus on common sense moves to make small businesses more profitable and public spaces safer as Hawai‘i County navigates this transitional period.

“(We will look at) easing up on some building and planning (restrictions) as far as allowing restaurants to operate with open doors,” Roth said.

“Some of our schools have not been able to use tents because they are temporary structures,” he added. “We’re worrying about temporary structures when we know it’s safer for people’s health to be outside.”

Wearing masks, social distancing, and handwashing have been stressed by the county for months as practices that allow public health and economic revival to walk hand-in-hand. It will be no different on Roth’s watch.

However, he said he’s also seen several studies pointing toward Vitamin D deficiency as a complication for those who contract coronavirus. Part of his health safety measures will be to research and likely advocate for Vitamin D deficiency tests and treatments in the future.

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