Gov. David Ige’s administration is poised to adopt a COVID-19 testing protocol similar to one being used by Alaska, and is expected to announce as early as this week that at least some travelers will be allowed to bypass Hawaii’s two-week quarantine requirement this summer if they provide proof of a recent negative test for the new coronavirus.
The 14-day quarantine requirement to block the spread of COVID-19 has helped Hawaii achieve the lowest infection rate of any state in the nation even after last week’s uptick in local case numbers. But the quarantine has shut down the state’s enormous visitor industry, putting hundreds of thousands of hotel, restaurant, retail and other employees out of work.
There has been intense pressure on the Ige administration to begin to reopen tourism even as infections are increasing in much of the mainland, and state Health Director Bruce Anderson told lawmakers Thursday the approach Alaska has taken by allowing travelers who test negative to avoid quarantine is “one of the options that’s probably most attractive to us.”
The possibility that a major chain, such as CVS Pharmacy, owner of Longs Drugs, would offer the tests at more than 1,000 outlets across the nation is also appealing, Anderson said. Lt. Gov. Josh Green has also been pursuing the option of pre-testing travelers.
But Anderson and state Epidemiologist Sarah Park warned members of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 that the tests are not foolproof, and some coronavirus cases will slip through even with a multilayered system that uses COVID tests, health surveys, temperature checks and quarantine for some travelers.
Anderson said in an interview that Ige has been talking with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy for weeks about the situation there, and Hawaii officials have been monitoring the Alaska protocol and the infection trend in that state “very carefully.”
Alaska has a huge summer fishing industry that depends on imported labor, and “I think the pressure is on them to open up travel to allow the commercial fishing industry to thrive again,” Anderson said.
Alaska began waiving its two-week quarantine requirement June 5 for arriving travelers who provide proof they have tested negative for COVID-19 in the last 72 hours, which provides Hawaii officials an opportunity to observe how disease rates in Alaska may be affected by the change.
“They are essentially the only state that has had a quarantine that they’re now taking down,” Anderson said. “They’re removing a quarantine that was in place and has been in place for some time, and so we’re going to be interested in seeing how effective their screening programs are.”
Travelers who refuse to be tested or cannot prove that they took a test are still subject to quarantine. Anderson said about one-third of travelers to Alaska have been providing proof of a recent test, and about one-third agree to be tested at the airport and isolate until they receive the test results.
The rest of the travelers simply agree to remain in quarantine for two weeks, he said.
Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for Alaska, said travelers who have been tested within 72 hours before they arrive in Alaska are asked to have “minimal interaction” with others — meaning they should stay out of stores and restaurants, for example — for seven to 14 days after they arrive, until they can be given a second test.
If the traveler is found to be negative in the second test, the quarantine is waived, Zink said. However, she said not everyone actually gets the follow-up test. For example, people who travel to Alaska for a brief fishing trip of five days or less do not retest, she said.
No data is available on how many visitors or residents are cleared in the pre-travel test but then test positive for COVID-19 in the follow-up tests, Zink said.
About 6,000 people per day are currently arriving in the state, and “we have not seen a spike in our cases since we opened this up,” she said.
People have tested positive at the airport, Zink said, but it is difficult to determine whether the pre-testing program and loosened quarantine restrictions have had an impact on the number of cases in the community.
“We already have community spread as well, so is it that, or is it more community spread because things are open? It’s a little bit hard to say,” she said.
Alaska officials believe one hard-to-quantify benefit to their system is that some people will discover they are infected when they take the pre-test before traveling and then won’t go to Alaska, she said.
There have been complaints from people who say the testing requirement is too burdensome, but Zink said people who decide to travel during a pandemic need to be prepared for some extra costs and risks.
“I think there’s a debate on, ‘Is it worth the amount of testing that we’re requiring?’ and I think there’s a debate on, ‘Is it opened up too far?’” Zink said. “I think it’s in this challenging middle space that we have to find a way to live with, because it’s going to be some time before we have a vaccine worldwide that controls this.”
State officials have also considered establishing a “travel bubble” that would relax travel restrictions between Hawaii and Alaska. But that possibility will depend on whether Alaska can keep the disease under control as the state reopens and relaxes its quarantine, he said.
“We’re concerned that opening up their borders is going to result in their seeing more cases, and in fact they’ve admitted that’s going to happen, that will happen, it’s just a question of degree,” Anderson said. Alaska, like Hawaii, is relying heavily on strategies that depend on personal responsibility, such as social distancing, masks and hand washing, he said.
“We’re going to be in the same situation, again. When we open up travel to the mainland U.S. and internationally, undoubtedly we’re going to start seeing more cases, but the real key is, can you manage the cases that are occurring?” he said.
“I think we can look to Alaska as a place that is experimenting with different ways of opening up their borders, and we’ll see how effective those are,” Anderson said. “We’re going to have to do that sooner or later, and we are going to be watching whether their testing protocols make any difference.”