A random sampling of 31 tests for the novel coronavirus all came back negative — an indication that there’s no community spread of the disease, Hawaii health officials said Friday.
The state Department of Health began broad community testing in a statewide surveillance program this week in an effort to find out whether the state has a bigger coronavirus problem than it thinks following complaints by doctors and community concerns over the lack of widespread testing.
The first batch of random negative flu samples pulled for COVID-19 testing was completed Friday.
“This is good news for Hawaii as positive results would have indicated community spread of the disease,” the DOH said in a news release. “While we cannot rule out community spread, the negative results are an encouraging benchmark.”
President Donald Trump on Friday declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency to free up money and resources to fight the outbreak. The U.S. now has 50 coronavirus deaths, and cases in all but one state.
Hawaii has two confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus that has sickened more than 145,000 — including more than 2,000 in the United States — and killed more than 5,400 worldwide as of Friday. 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 an male senior who recently returned from Washington state, where most U.S. coronavirus deaths have occurred.
State Health Director Bruce Anderson said Friday at a news conference that there is still no evidence of community spread in Hawaii — cases that can’t be traced back to a traveler or someone who was exposed to a confirmed case.
To help prevent community spread under the surveillance program, the State Laboratories Division in Pearl City will ramp up COVID-19 testing of samples collected for influenza that come back negative. The division expects to receive up to 400 samples a week from doctor’s offices and clinics.
In addition to the surveillance program, 54 of the most serious influenza cases have been tested locally, including from Tripler Army Medical Center. Test results are pending for at least seven suspect cases, including two on Kauai. The DOH is also monitoring 27 people in self-quarantine.
Private hospitals and clinics are also racing to set up sites to screen patients with less severe symptoms who may have been missed.
The Queen’s Medical Center set up “disaster tents” outside the emergency department Thursday to evaluate and screen patients for the novel coronavirus. It swabbed just 15 patients on its first day of opening because of the strict criteria for testing. The criteria include fever, upper respiratory symptoms (coughing or shortness of breath) and travel history to China, Italy, Iran or South Korea.
“That’s where it gets a little subjective. If you get a physician’s order for a test, then … they just do the test. Unfortunately, there are not enough test kits available to test everybody at this point,” Queen’s President Jason Chang told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Queen’s, which owns Diagnostic Laboratory Services, purchased 5,000 kits from the CDC. DLS can only collect the samples, which then must be sent to a mainland laboratory for testing. Chang said the company hoped to get government approval Friday to start testing their own samples in-state.
“The thing that we’re worried about is … if you voluntarily screen anybody without symptoms, it’s not covered by HMSA or insurance, so they have to pay out of pocket, and two, we will run out of tests,” he said. “That’s why we use screening criteria. We know it’s not a perfect science.”
In Washington early this morning, the House, with President Donald Trump’s support, passed a bill to provide free testing for the coronavirus. The legislation will be taken up by the Senate next week. It would require private health insurance plans to provide free testing, and would waive cost-sharing rules for testing provided to people covered by Medicare, Medicaid and federal retirement programs. Another $1 billion is provided to test people without health insurance. It boosts federal matching funds to state Medicaid programs by 6.2% to ease the financial strain on states.
The Queen’s clinic wasn’t advertised, so the number of people seeking to be tested was “much lower than we expected,” Chang said.
“I think that in the very beginning we will have many more people that don’t have symptoms and don’t qualify for the test that we will potentially have to turn way,” Chang said, adding that Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is heading the coronavirus efforts, has told Queen’s to be prepared in the early stages of testing for 60,000 tests, “which we clearly don’t have.” “That’s why we’re trying to be very judicious screening patients for appropriateness.”
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said Friday that an ill friend who was exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case was unable to get tested at a private clinic on Oahu.
The congresswoman tweeted Friday that her friend went to Urgent Care Hawaii to get tested but was rejected because he didn’t meet criteria. She uploaded a picture of a COVID-19 high-risk patient screening checklist, with check marks on “contact with person who has/had positive COVID-19 test result, cough, recent travel to Asia, Iran, Italy, France and mainland U.S.” and contact with people who recently traveled to those countries.
“In the hour he’s been there, three other sick people were turned away. Gov. (David) Ige?” tagging the governor and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the tweet. “He was told that because he doesn’t have a fever, even though he’s been exposed and is sick and has traveled to (the) identified countries, he doesn’t meet the criteria to get tested. His elderly mother in law and five children live in his house and are at risk if he’s positive.” Representatives of Urgent Care Hawaii couldn’t be reached for comment.
State officials are urging those who don’t have symptoms not to flood testing sites unnecessarily so that resources can be used on the severely ill and to prevent the health care system from collapsing.
“Emergency rooms are getting slammed with people who want to be tested for COVID-19,” Anderson said.“What we’re looking at is trying to assure that we’re able to manage the cases that are likely to occur so you don’t see an undue burden on the health care system so we can continue life as we know it,” he said. “We feel very strongly that we should be taking a preventive approach anticipating what might happen. It’s like a tsunami coming for us, and we’re trying to prepare for it.”