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Coronavirus testing, temperature checks and quarantine will be imperfect, Hawaii health director says

                                Hawaii Health Director Bruce Anderson holds a press conference at the state Capitol on Monday.
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Hawaii Health Director Bruce Anderson holds a press conference at the state Capitol on Monday.

Leading state health officials are basically pouring cold water on the hopes of anyone in Hawaii who expects that COVID-19 testing, temperature checks, health questionnaires or quarantine will somehow open a disease-free path to restarting the state’s tourism industry.

State Health Director Bruce Anderson told members of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 on Thursday that “you’re lucky” if even widespread testing would catch 30% of the people with COVID-19 who are infectious.

He also described thermal screening to detect airline passengers who have a fever as “very ineffective” and “a very crude and inaccurate indicator” that people could have the new coronavirus. That may be a bit disappointing to lawmakers, who appropriated $36 million last month for new temperature screening programs.

“We all expect that once we see arrivals, whether you do testing or not, there will be cases introduced,” said state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park. “The testing will not stop the introductions.”

Park said people seem to be looking for a single solution — the one thing that will fix the problem — but there is none.

On the issue of testing, Anderson reminded lawmakers that health officials are testing 750 staff members and about 250 residents at the Hale Nani Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, which has a COVID-19 outbreak. No matter what protocols are established for travelers, outbreaks such as at Hale Nani will take priority over testing of travelers, he said.

Still, Anderson noted that Alaska has set up a system that includes “one of the options that’s probably most attractive to us,” which is a system that allows travelers to be tested before they board an airplane. People undergo testing a few days before they travel to Alaska, and if they provide proof of a legitimate test, Alaska’s quarantine requirement is waived, he said.

Travelers in Alaska are also allowed to get tested after they arrive, which has put a burden on hospitals in Anchorage and Fairbanks, he said, but it is an approach Hawaii is considering.

Anderson said about a third of the travelers who arrive in Alaska from out of state show proof they were tested in advance, another third agree to be tested after they arrive and a third simply agree to quarantine.

Park said she personally would not trust such a negative test in a traveler, and Anderson said that even if Hawaii adopts a system of coronavirus testing at point of origin or upon arrival in Hawaii, travelers would need to fill out a health survey to ask them about any symptoms they might have.

“A test is not 100% reliable, far from it,” he said.

Park said the most important piece of the system in her view will be the ability to track people who develop symptoms after they arrive and clear the screening process. The state needs a way to locate both those people and the people with whom they have close contact.

She also said she supports pre-screening travelers at the point of origin to try to prevent people with symptoms from boarding the airplanes.

Park said that “everyone is on the same page in that we cannot keep this draconian measure of 14-day quarantine. It’s killing our economy, it’s killing us, and we have to come up with another solution.”

“We all have to accept, we’re living in a new COVID world. There will be new introductions no matter what kind of screening or whatnot we put in place. I just want to make sure that people understand that we don’t believe that a negative test of a traveler will be helpful, and we need to put other safeguards in place.”

People also need to permanently change their habits, she said. People need to continue to wear masks, wash hands, clean surfaces and have sick-leave policies in place so that ill people can stay home, she said.

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