Post-Arrival COVID Testing at Big Island Airports Winds Down
Thursday marked the beginning of the end for COVID-19 testing at Big Island airports, as Premier Medical Group took its leave to refocus efforts on administering vaccinations.
Basis Dx, a California-based medical entity, will pick up post-arrival testing duties on the Big Island after being enlisted to the task by Hawai´i County Mayor Mitch Roth. How long the company will engage in airport testing of visitor arrivals and returning residents across the Big Island remains an open question, though the Mayor’s Office indicated Thursday that the timetable is not likely to stretch on for a protracted period.
“We are looking to steer away from post-arrival testing come the end of the month,” Cyrus Johnasen, the administration’s communication director, wrote in an email to Big Island Now.
“Moving forward, our administration intends to ween off of the post-arrival testing program by first reducing testing to only those trans-pacific travelers that are unable to prove that they have been vaccinated,” Mayor Roth said in a statement released late Thursday afternoon. “We will be the first in the state to do so and look forward to piloting that program.”
Dr. Scott Miscovich, president and CEO of Premier Medical Group, said his understanding is that Mayor Roth will make bi-weekly determinations as to whether or not to continue administering a second test to those who arrive at Big Island airports, either from other islands, the mainland or foreign countries.
Much of the cost associated with the post-arrival testing program has been supported by private benefactors since early 2021. Now, as Hawai´i surpasses 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccinations administered statewide, the general risk has somewhat diminished. Nearly 77 million people living in the United States have been fully vaccinated, with nearly 200 million doses of the vaccine administered as of April 15.
“Between the dates of Dec. 15, 2020, and March 31, 2021, the County of Hawaiʻi relinquished all fiscal responsibility related to post-arrival airport testing to our private philanthropist partners who created a new contract with Premier Medical Group (PMG),” Mayor Roth said. “We did, however, oversee the daily operations of the Hilo and Kona airports during the same period.”
“When an agreement could no longer be reached between PMG and our partners, we took back fiscal responsibility on April 1,” the mayor’s statement continued. “In our resumption of fiscal responsibility for airport testing, we chose to seek lower testing rates, as public monies would incur the cost. PMG had notified us of a steep increase in rates, which led us to part ways.”
Hawai´i’s Safe Travels Program is still in effect and appears it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Talk of a vaccine passport program has ratcheted up in recent weeks, but Governor David Ige has indicated that the companies the state has enlisted to develop pilot programs still have considerable work to accomplish before ambition transforms into reality.
The two initiatives — the Safe Travels Program and a vaccine passport program — moving forward will provide a level of coronavirus protection for the State and County of Hawai´i as tourism continues its climb toward pre-pandemic levels.
“The State’s Safe Travels program will remain in effect for ALL trans-Pacific travelers,” Roth said. “With the introductions of vaccines as an added layer of protection, we feel it is time to begin the return to normalcy, including reducing added pressures on our airlines, airports, kamaʻāina and visitors. As always, we will continue to monitor our numbers and adjust as necessary to ensure our community’s health and safety.”
Miscovich said Premier Medical Group conducted more than 400,000 tests in the six months between Oct. 15, 2020, when the state launched its Safe Travels Program, and April 15, 2021, the last day his group operated at Big Island airports.
Post-arrival testing, an initiative championed by the administration of former Mayor Harry Kim, endeavored to test every visitor or returning resident who passed through the airport system. And the program accomplished that goal, for the most part, until April 1, when the Roth administration decided circumstances warranted scaling back testing to 50% of arrivals.
But the end of airport testing will not be the end of Premier Medical Group’s involvement with COVID-19 protection and prevention on the Big Island.
“Moving forward, (Premier) will realign with our original mission and focus on Hawai´i County’s most vulnerable community members. We will continue to serve all interested in the benefits of our COVID-19 testing,” Miscovich said. “In collaboration with the (State) Department of Health, Premier will distribute vaccines in the community and maintain our testing program.”
Miscovich added that the group will deploy two mobile vaccination teams and will likely assume responsibilities for all large scale vaccination programs in Kailua-Kona by early May.