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Editorial: Progress made on tracking coronavirus testing in Hawaii

                                A testing specimen is secured during a drive-thru COVID-19 testing put on by Kalihi Kai Urgent Care at Ala Moana Center.


    A testing specimen is secured during a drive-thru COVID-19 testing put on by Kalihi Kai Urgent Care at Ala Moana Center.

Hawaii has managed to gain some control over its risk of coronavirus infections, and stands in a fairly enviable position for reopening the economy — at least in theory.

New infections of the highly contagious virus, and the disease named COVID-19 that has triggered a global pandemic, are sure to arise as commercial activity increases.

But Hawaii’s health-care system has the capability to treat them, say state Department of Health officials, who also assure the public it is prepared to trace the contacts of a newly infected person well enough to contain community spread of the disease.

We’re all about to find out how well this works in practice. Retail shops and Oahu churches have begun to open, under restrictions, with dine-in restaurants to follow June 5. Expect a degree of nervousness: Already, even with tourism traffic largely halted at the airport, the initial response has been tentative.

What should fill people with hope is that some substantial advances are being made toward a more robust, locally based system of testing larger swaths of the population for COVID-19.

Of course, testing is not a stand-alone solution for the persistent threat of this potentially fatal respiratory illness. In many ways, public safety relies primarily on a cooperative public, willing to adopt new habits in their own personal behavior.

Fortunately, Hawaii has been largely compliant with directives to mitigate viral spread by frequent hand-washing, wearing masks in places of close contact, and by generally keeping to the recommended 6-foot distancing recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the testing component is critical to establishing trust in the ability of local institutions to create safe environments. When new infections are detected, Hawaii residents want to see that the impact can be promptly contained.

Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine that the public will be eager to venture into newly reopened shops and churches, especially once the 14-day quarantine on all passengers arriving at the airports is lifted. That’s still weeks away, but Gov. David Ige is poised to send up a trial balloon, with the reopening of interisland travel. So it’s best that the state work out any potential problems now.

It apparently has the capacity in reserve now. DOH Director Bruce Anderson last week announced that Hawaii has more than 38,300 COVID-19 tests on hand and is currently using 690 of them, on average, per day. The staff available to perform the tests has doubled in the past month, up to 135 from the 68 a month ago.

Dr. Edward Desmond, State Laboratories Division (SLD) administrator, confirmed the capability to ramp up to 3,620 tests a day, with the potential to increase further over the coming weeks.

More encouraging news came last week with the announcement that the city has struck a partnership to provide 50,000 diagnostic tests through the end of the year at Oahu’s scattered community health centers. Additionally, 49,000 antibody tests will be made available as part of a study to identify levels of COVID-19 locally.

The health centers will offer tests at points around the island, with diagnostic samples collected by Honolulu-based Clinical Labs and Diagnostic Labs and analyzed locally, enabling quick results turnaround, said Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Most encouraging of all: This initiative will deploy $4 million in federal CARES Act money to stand up a new testing laboratory based at the John. A. Burns School of Medicine, with additional support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

That lab establishment is being fast-tracked to open in about six weeks — which will be essential in supporting the opening of the University of Hawaii campuses. In addition, the DOH contract with UH to train health-care personnel for contact tracing — finding and closing down avenues of virus spread — is a critical component in the entire plan.

None of these improvements represents a short-term investment. The reality of the new pandemic age is that infectious diseases will be a persistent, accelerating hazard of the global economy. Hawaii needs to be able to deal with it locally — even regionally.

The world is continuing to learn more about the novel coronavirus, but from what is already known about its transmission, it can’t be categorized as a peril brought to the islands only by tourism. State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said Hawaii’s community spread, limited as it has been, largely resulted from local residents coming home from their own travels.

She has a point. Hawaii has a close, family-based culture that shares everything — and this time, disease came along for the ride. The state’s budding system of testing is a welcome asset, but the bulk of the responsibility for keeping Hawaii healthy rests with its people.

Continue to follow the rules, kamaaina. You know what they are.

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