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Honolulu creates partnership to increase coronavirus testing

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Mayor Caldwell spoke Tuesday at a news conference in Makiki.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Mayor Caldwell spoke Tuesday at a news conference in Makiki.

With more of the island’s activities gradually opening, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Tuesday that the city is aiming to provide coronavirus testing for more than 100,000 people, or about 1 in 10 Oahu residents.

“We should test, test and do more testing,” Caldwell said at a news conference in Kakaako. “It’s the way we open up.”

He said the safest way to loosen city restrictions designed to slow the spread of the new coronavirus is by testing, contact tracing and isolation.

The city began allowing most retailers to join essential businesses in reopening Friday and is on track to have sit-down service at Oahu eateries begin June 5.

As the city does more of this, the public will feel government is doing everything possible to protect them, and the city can jump on it if there is a spike in cases, the mayor said.

“As we allow interislanders to travel again, perhaps at the end of this month, the beginning of June or the middle of June, and then from there opening it up to (out-of-state) visitors again, we have to be ready when this virus lifts its head up,“ Caldwell said.

He spoke of multiple ways the city can test for COVID-19, including lab testing, testing for antibodies and testing the city’s wastewater for the presence of the virus.

Caldwell announced “agreements in principal” with the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, the island’s private medical testing laboratories Diagnostic Laboratories Services and Clinical Labs of Hawaii, and Oahu’s seven community health centers to create a partnership with the goal of testing more than 100,000 people.

The money will come from the city’s $387 million share of the federal government’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) package passed by Congress in March.

Specifically, the city is committing:

>> $2 million for setting up a program of about 45,000 standard “swab” tests to be conducted among the island’s most underserved and uninsured populations through Oahu’s seven community health centers and two medical labs on the island. The testing reports would be turned over to the state Department of Health, and those testing positive could be isolated with the help of the city, the mayor said.

>> Up to $4 million to help the UH medical school set up a state-of-the-art lab of its own that would do both cotton swab and antibody testing for up to about 49,000 tests, Caldwell said. The antibody testing capability is also getting funding through the Rockefeller Foundation’s Testing Solutions Group.

>> $25,000 for a wastewater epidemiology program to test the fecal matter showing up at all nine Oahu wastewater treatment centers. It won’t be able to pinpoint what individuals or even neighborhoods are showing a prevalence of infection, but will offer a “bird’s-eye view” and show trends of the situation, Environmental Services Director Lori Kahikina said.

Several weeks ago the Caldwell administration got into a verbal tiff with state officials when they questioned the city’s decision to pay a Texas-based company to analyze samples collected by testing done at the community centers. While city officials refuted the Health Department’s suspicions, it held off on executing an agreement with Everlywell.

Additionally, Caldwell announced that the city will conduct a wastewater epidemiological testing program for the presence of COVID-19 to trace what parts of the island may be seeing an uptick of the virus.

“It doesn’t mean they can trace from that presence who exactly was sick, but it can tell us what is the prevalence of COVID-19 in our wastewater, and is it going up or going down.” Caldwell said. “It shows trend lines, and it alerts people … whether there is an increase in the virus.”

On Tuesday, UH President David Lassner noted that Gov. David Ige, Lt. Gov. Josh Green and state Health Director Bruce Anderson all know of the UH medical school’s partnership with the city on COVID-19 testing, and “they had no concerns whatsoever about us collaborating with the city and county … to advance the health of people of Hawaii.”

UH officials said it will take about $1.1 million and four to six weeks to stand up the new laboratory site at the JABSOM campus in Kakaako, the site of Tuesday’s news conference.

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