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COVID Test Surplus Could Help Reopen Big Island High Schools

February 3, 2021, 3:54 PM HST
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Kealakehe High School in Kailua-Kona. Google Street View image.

The discovery of a surplus of COVID-19 antigen tests has created a potential path to bring Big Island high school students back into the classroom.

Approximately 800,000 test kits, originally procured by Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA), were found in a state bunker. With expiration dates on the kits fast approaching, Scott Miscovich, president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawai‘i (PMG), proposed a twice-a-week testing program for the 7,000 students and staff at Hawai‘i Island’s nine public high schools.

Miscovich said he was already looking for a way to conduct student testing that would allow for the return of in-person instruction.

“The surplus made it a reality since (the) cost is always a factor,” Miscovich said of procuring the kits.

Over the past several months, PMG has worked closely with Hawai‘i County in developing a testing program that provides access to communities islandwide as well as a post-arrival testing program for transpacific travelers at Big Island’s airports.

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“We’re so proud of the program we have with the county and Department of Health,” Miscovich said, noting the community and airport testing programs are a model for the country.

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“Our economy is fully functioning,” Miscovich added. “The next step is opening the schools. The mental health of kids is challenged. The families have suffered so much.”

The airport testing program currently uses the antigen tests on transpacific travelers. Miscovich said the test has a 96-98% accuracy rate.

Results from the antigen tests are available within approximately 15 minutes. Miscovich said if a student tests positive for the virus, health care workers would repeat the test with the nasal swab, also known as a PCR test. Contact tracing would be conducted in partnership with DOH on Hawai‘i Island.

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Miscovich hopes to discuss this program with the Hawai‘i Department of Education.

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On Tuesday evening, the DOE confirmed to Big Island Now that the three complex area superintendents on the Big Island and leadership team “had not been looped in on the details for this proposal.”

While DOE officials couldn’t comment on the proposed testing program, they stated the following:

“We continue to prioritize the health and safety of our students, staff and school communities and are working closely with the Department of Health to expedite access to the vaccine for our employees. As more employees are vaccinated, we anticipate being able to provide greater opportunities for safe, in-person learning and activities for our students.”

Miscovich believes they have enough test kits to cover 16 weeks, in addition to testing student-athletes three times a week for increased surveillance.

“If we get schools going back, I would run this (program) as long as we need,” Miscovich said.

Miscovich noted the test wouldn’t be required of students.

“It can’t be mandatory — this is America,” he added.

Officials from the Mayor’s Office say they are unaware of any conversations between PMG and the administration regarding the proposed testing program. However, it is a conversation they are excited to have.

“Getting our keiki back to the classroom and returning to normalcy in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the health and safety of our community is certainly a conversation that our administration is excited to have,” stated Cyrus Johnasen, Mayor Mitch Roth’s communications director.

“At this time, we continue to remain cognizant of our more vulnerable populations, such as our kūpuna, who are still awaiting their full round of vaccinations,” he continued. “We’ve done a great job of keeping our numbers down thus far and will continue to remain vigilant as we begin to loosen restrictions.”

Teachers at Big Island high schools represent the last variable in the equation. The Hawai‘i State Teachers Union has spoken out adamantly against rushing back to the classroom amid the pandemic before all educators who wish to be vaccinated have received their shots.

Teachers are classified as essential workers and are included in Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine rollout program. All members of that group are currently eligible for inoculation.

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