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H-3 testing to proceed today despite federal objection

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The H-3 Freeway will be closed today for COVID-19 surge testing in the Tetsuo 
Harano Tunnel. The first surge testing in the tunnel was held on Tuesday. Pictured are cars and personnel at Tuesday’s event in the Kaneohe-bound tunnel. Each tunnel had 50 testing stations and 30 registration stations inside.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The H-3 Freeway will be closed today for COVID-19 surge testing in the Tetsuo Harano Tunnel. The first surge testing in the tunnel was held on Tuesday. Pictured are cars and personnel at Tuesday’s event in the Kaneohe-bound tunnel. Each tunnel had 50 testing stations and 30 registration stations inside.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                <strong>Ed Sniffen:</strong>
                                <em>The state Highways Division deputy director said he would continue to press for federal permission before today’s testing</em>

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Ed Sniffen:

    The state Highways Division deputy director said he would continue to press for federal permission before today’s testing

Drive-thru surge testing for COVID-19 is scheduled to continue on the H-3 freeway today as the state defies the Federal Highway Administration for a second time and risks the loss of federal funding.

Meanwhile, state health officials on Wednesday reported one new coronavirus-related death and 339 new cases, the second- highest daily count since the pandemic began some six months ago.

Hilo Medical Center also reported another death at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, the fourth one this week. A total of 46 residents and 12 employees of the veterans home have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the hospital.

The death likely will appear in today’s Department of Health coronavirus tally.

The other fatality was an Oahu man in his 50s who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions. No other information was provided.

At least 20 people have died due to COVID-19 in the last week, bringing the official number of fatalities to 75.

Officials said Wednesday’s total case count was padded by 90 previously diagnosed cases from the last half of August. Reporting was delayed, they said, because of “a private laboratory report format issue.”

In addition, 27 of the positive cases came from the ongoing surge testing on Oahu, the first batch of test results reflected in the daily totals.

“Although many more test results from surge testing will be received during the next couple of weeks, it is reassuring to see that the positivity rate is only 0.4% — 27 of 5,674 — or below 1%,” state Health Director Bruce Anderson said in a statement.

The state’s record daily count — 355 cases — occurred Aug. 13.

Like Tuesday’s event, the H-3 freeway will be shut down on both sides of the Koolaus for the free testing from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those who want to get tested may pre-register at doineedacovid19test.com.

Thousands were tested Tuesday in the first freeway event, part of the ongoing federally funded surge program that aims to test up to 90,000 people through Sept. 14.

State officials decided to turn the freeway into a temporary testing venue because of its capacity to hold hundreds of vehicles without creating congestion in surrounding neighborhoods.

The problem is they never got the necessary approvals from the Federal Highway Administration, and their request to commandeer the interstate was turned down in a letter that was received the morning of the event.

In the letter, FHWA Hawaii Division Administrator Ralph Rizzo said the agency was “extremely concerned” about the impacts of the state’s proposal as well as “the precedent that closing H-3 for health testing will set.”

Rizzo said there’s a high bar for approving such a proposal, and it is allowed only if the administrator determines if it’s “in the public interest and will not impair the highway or interfere with the free and safe flow of traffic.”

Among a variety of concerns, Rizzo questioned the state’s traffic control plan and expressed concern about its impact on first responders heading to emergencies.

In any case, the closure would require notice in the Federal Register and that process never occurred, he wrote.

The letter goes on to warn that if the state proceeds with shutting down the freeway, the federal agency “may take any action deemed appropriate, including withholding Federal-aid highway funding and project approvals.”

The state receives $180 million in federal highways money each year.

On Tuesday, Ed Sniffen, state Highways Division deputy director, said he was to blame for not giving federal officials enough information about how important the testing is to a state now being slammed by the virus.

Sniffen defended the safety measures set up for the event and said he would would continue to press for permission before today’s second testing.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara said Wednesday afternoon that “the Highways Division continues to work with the FHWA” and that the event will proceed as planned.

In other COVID-19 developments Wednesday:

>> The state Department of Public Safety reported that two deputy sheriffs, working in separate sections, tested positive. One deputy worked in the Airport Section and the other was at the Kapolei Court. Work areas were sanitized. DPS also reported that two more inmates and three employees at Oahu Community Correctional Center also tested positive.

The total number of inmates in custody with active COVID cases dropped from 73 to 51 and the number of recovered increased from 217 to 230, DPS said. The total number of staff with active COVID cases is 49 and the number of recovered staff increased from 27 to 30.

>> In a move to try to slow the spread of the virus on Hawaii island, Mayor Harry Kim signed an emergency order closing all county and state beach parks for two weeks from Friday to Sept 18.

>> Prodded by a state Supreme Court order, Hawaii County released 24 inmates from Hawaii Community Correctional Center, including 18 felons. The move was intended to protect inmates from potential harm from the virus. County prosecutors opposed the releases.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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