Hawaii health officials will begin broad community testing this week to find out whether the state has a more severe coronavirus problem than it thinks.
Following complaints by doctors and community concerns over the lack of widespread testing, the Department of Health announced a statewide surveillance program to identify any unknown cases throughout the islands.
“It’s probably inevitable for the disease to come to Hawaii and get established in the community,” Gov. David Ige said at a news conference, adding that more than 30 states are now reporting clusters of the virus. “We do anticipate that will happen. What this surveillance testing allows us is what all of the other governors wish they had. It would’ve been helpful to know if the virus was present. We continue to hope that it’s not present, but we don’t want to close our eyes to the possibility that it is.”
The State Laboratories Division in Pearl City will randomly test 200 samples collected for influenza surveillance that come back negative for the flu and then notify those confirmed with COVID-19 to take steps to prevent community spread. The division expects to receive up to 400 samples a week from doctor’s offices and clinics.
“How can people who seriously suspect they have the coronavirus be put into a lottery system, and have only a random sample’s chance to receive the actual test?” said House minority leader Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley) in a news release following Ige’s rollout of the program. “Hawaii has tested a little more than 20 to 30 people for the virus since its inception many weeks ago and is said to gear up to about 250 in another week. South Korea has conducted over 110,000 coronavirus tests; it seems we should be able to do more than a handful.”
The governor said so far there is no evidence of community spread — cases that can’t be traced back to a traveler or someone who was exposed to a confirmed case.
Hawaii has two confirmed cases of the novel virus that has sickened more than 110,000 — including more than 1,000 in the United States — and killed more than 4,200 worldwide. The first Hawaii case involved an individual in home quarantine who was on the Grand Princess cruise from San Francisco to Mexico last month and a male senior who recently returned from Washington state, where most U.S. coronavirus deaths have occurred. The state said 24 cases have been tested locally, including those from Tripler Army Medical Center, which the DOH recently began adding to surveillance totals. Health officials are also monitoring 52 people in self-quarantine.
“Hawaii may be reacting too slowly and too sluggishly while getting up to speed with testing and monitoring, though thank God we have only two live cases of the coronavirus to date,” Ward wrote in a letter to Ige. “People’s lives are at stake and we should act expeditiously and not bureaucratically.”
Additional testing to detect COVID-19 cases earlier will help the state better contain the virus, officials said, adding that they are considering “social distancing” measures, including canceling events, closing schools and urging businesses to have their employees work from home.
“I know there’s been a lot of concern that we’re only focused on individuals with serious illness in our community, and there may be others who are less ill and may be spreading the disease. This program is intended to focus on those who we may not know about — people who haven’t come to our attention from physicians because they didn’t have serious conditions or meet the criteria we were required to use in our earlier testing programs,” Health Director Bruce Anderson said.
He said the new program will significantly help the state’s prevention and mitigation efforts “so that we can keep our communities safe and informed about how the virus is affecting our state.”
The state also expects testing for suspect cases to dramatically increase as private laboratories come online. Clinical Labs of Hawaii and Diagnostic Laboratory Services began offering coronavirus testing services Tuesday and are working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to obtain approval for local testing. Until FDA approval, the private labs will send testing samples to a mainland laboratory for confirmation.
Ige started the news conference addressing a report by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about Ditmar Hoerl, a 67-year-old Kula resident who developed flu-like symptoms Feb. 1 following a weeklong trip to Singapore. Despite testing negative for both influenza A and B, the Health Department declined to test him for COVID-19.
“If that case … happened today, they would be tested, clearly. They were denied testing if it happened on Feb. 1 because we didn’t have the ability to test in the state of Hawaii. We only allowed testing according to the CDC criteria (for those who traveled to countries affected by the virus or was exposed to a confirmed case), and clearly, the incident did not meet the CDC criteria at that time,” Ige said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been pushing very hard to develop the local testing. It allows us to be able to control who gets tested for COVID-19. Any patient who is symptomatic should contact their doctors. Every physician request for a patient that meets the requirements will get tested here in the state.”
Physicians who deem a coronavirus test necessary will no longer have to get Health Department approval when testing through the private laboratories.