Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
So today, the state plans to shut down the H-3 freeway in both directions to conduct free COVID-19 drive-thru surge testing, part of a three-week federally funded program aimed at testing up to 90,000 people. The city, state, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the Surgeon General are collaborating on the effort, which began Wednesday in response to the skyrocketing number of coronavirus cases on Oahu.
As of early Monday evening, the state was still awaiting official authorization by the Federal Highways Administration to close the freeway for surge testing operations, but Ed Sniffen, deputy director of the state Department of Transportation’s Highways Division, said officials opted to move forward with plans in anticipation of approval because of the importance of reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The state, he said Monday, was continuing to work with federal officials in an expedited approval process.
“This is an all-hands effort,” said Sniffen. It’s a partnership “to make sure we take care of everyone’s health needs in Hawaii.”
The H-3 freeway is expected to be closed in both directions from the Halawa interchange and the Halekou interchange in Kaneohe from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. as testing is conducted on a first-come first-served basis from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The freeway is also scheduled to close for testing Thursday during the same hours.
Sniffen encouraged online pre-registration, anticipating 5,000 to 7,000 people will be tested on the freeway today.
“We’ll make sure we’ll get you through as quickly as possible,” he said, while warning that long lines should be expected.
A word of advice: bring snacks and water.
A total of 30 registration stations and 50 testing stations will be set up inside the right lanes of the H-3 tunnels in both directions. Transportation staff will monitor carbon monoxide levels in the tunnels to ensure safety for everyone.
Sniffen said the freeway was selected as a testing site because it provides ample space over a 5-mile stretch to accommodate a high number of vehicles and avoids traffic overflows into neighboring roads and communities. The freeway could potentially hold up to 1,200 vehicles — about 250 vehicles for each one-mile stretch — on both sides of the freeway.
The first day of surge testing on Oahu took place Wednesday at Leeward Community College and Kaneohe District Park. While some who headed to the testing sites thanked officials for the initiative, others complained of confusion and long lines.
At a Monday virtual news conference, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell acknowledged glitches at the initial testing sites, but said officials have since worked on improvements. “It’s a learning process for us,” he said, noting that walk-in testing sites appear to run more smoothly than drive-thru locations.
Nevertheless, “people are showing up in extraordinary numbers,” Caldwell said.
The intent of the surge testing program is to aid in determining areas where the coronavirus outbreak is prevalent and to focus efforts on contract tracing and quarantine. By doing so, Caldwell said they aim to reduce the number of coronavirus cases and reopen the economy again.
Honolulu police will be used to direct traffic flow at the H-3 testing site and the Hawaii Army National Guard will assist at the registration stations.
Vehicles may enter H-3 to line up for COVID-19 testing starting at 8:30 a.m. from the following ramps:
>> H-201 Moanalua Freeway eastbound (Exit 1C) at the Halawa interchange, offramps to H-3 East/Kaneohe.
>> H-201 Moanalua Freeway westbound (Exit 1D) at the Halawa interchange, offramps to H-3 East/Kaneohe.
>> H-1 eastbound (Exit 13A) offramp to H-3 & 78 East — Honolulu/Kaneohe.
>> H-1 westbound (Exit 13B) offramp to H-3 & 78 East — Honolulu/Kaneohe.
>> Kamehameha Highway Kaneohe-bound, offramp to H-3 West/Pearl Harbor.
>> Kamehameha Highway Kailua-bound, offramp to H-3 West/Pearl Harbor.
The state was to set up portable toilets at every mile on both sides of the H-3 freeway. Those who want to be tested must bring their own hand sanitizer or hand wipes and wear face coverings.
Sniffen said there will be no access to the H-3 from Likelike Highway. Non- testing traffic on the Halawa- bound lanes of the H-3 from Kailua and Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawaii will be re-directed to the Kamehameha Highway offramps at the Halekou interchange, Exit 11.
To pre-register or for more information on the free COVID-19 surge testing program, visit doineedacovid19test.com.