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Some travelers allowed to enter Hawaii without tests from approved labs

Some travelers who arrived in Hawaii during the first four days of the reopening of tourism were allowed to skip the 14-day mandatory quarantine even though they did not have COVID-19 tests from the state’s “trusted testing partners.”

These travelers had tested negative for the virus, but the tests were conducted at labs not on the state’s approved list. Instead of insisting they quarantine for 14 days, which the new travel policy calls for, the state decided to let them in as part of a grace period.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Sunday the grace period will end today, and only those tested negative at state-approved facilities will now be allowed to skip the quarantine.

“In the first four days of the program, we have worked with all of our travelers, including thousands of returning residents, who made a good faith effort to get a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) from a proper lab partner they believed was acceptable,” Green said.

“This provided a minor grace period for some people with a gold standard negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, who were confused about the new process,” Green said. “Importantly, they had tested negative. Those who got no test or a substandard test were placed in quarantine. Our expectation starting (today) is that only tests from trusted partners can be considered.”

On Thursday, Hawaii moved to reopen its No. 1 industry, which had been effectively shut down since March 26, when the governor imposed a 14-day mandatory quarantine on all trans-Pacific travelers. As of Thursday, travelers could avoid the quarantine with an approved negative COVID-19 test.

As a result of the change, the number of visitors arriving in the state has jumped to thousands per day, up from only a few hundred per day.

On Saturday, the latest numbers available, 9,841 passengers arrived in Hawaii — 7,117 visitors and 2,724 returning residents. Some 8,217 of Saturday’s passengers were exempted from the quarantine because they had a negative test result.

Another 1,624 travelers to Hawaii on Saturday were told that they would have to quarantine for 14 days.

Hawaii’s passenger quarantine contributed to a 70% year-over-year drop in visitor arrivals to Hawaii from January through August.

On Oct. 7 Gov. David Ige announced the first “trusted testing partners” for the pre-travel testing program. An updated list of partners can be found at www.HawaiiCOVID19.com. The list has 15 trusted testing partners, including Walgreens, CVS Health and Kaiser Permanente.

Previously, the state had told travelers that they could participate in the pre-arrivals testing program if they took an FDA-­authorized nucleic acid amplification test from a certified Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments lab no earlier than 72 hours prior to the last leg of their trip to Hawaii. The state added the “trusted testing partner” requirement to make it easier for the state’s Safe Travels Hawaii |application to confirm the accuracy of test results.

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said there have been some bumps in the reopening of tourism, but he believes the effort has gone about as smoothly as could be expected so far.

“The visitors seem glad to be back. I am hearing about long lines at the airports, but hopefully, that will improve,” Hannemann said.

Honolulu resident Jerry Lynch, who traveled with wife Jeri to the Hotel Wailea in Maui on Friday, said the state needs to add more airport screeners. Lynch also recommends creating an airport testing program in Hawaii and streamlining the Safe Travels Hawaii application to reduce duplicate questions.

Lynch said he’s glad to see tourism return to Hawaii, as “driving down Kalakaua Avenue and seeing it empty isn’t a good sign.”

However, he said Hawaii must improve its entry process or the destination’s reputation could suffer.

”We waited a full hour after we landed to navigate the line to get through the COVID process. It is totally unacceptable to have three or four agents processing a full Hawaiian flight. The line stretched the full length of the interisland terminal,” he said.

Lynch said the couple has since talked to other Maui-bound travelers who waited more than two hours on their planes and then waited another three to four hours on the ground.

In addition to the pre-arrival tests, the state plans to begin a surveillance testing program today, Green said.

The pilot program was created as an additional layer of security amid growing concerns that one pre-travel test per traveler won’t be enough to prevent a surge in infections, which have plateaued at about 100 cases a day, a significantly higher base line than in the early months of the pandemic. The program will select a sample of 10% of incoming passengers, whose participation in the program is voluntary.

Positive test results will be shared with travelers and the state Department of Health. Anyone positive will immediately be contacted and ordered to quarantine per state rules.

During the collapse of tourism in Hawaii, some 150,000 Hawaii jobs were lost, while 11,000 residents have not been able to keep up with their rent and 40,000 have had to get health insurance through Med-QUEST, the state’s health insurance plan for low-income adults and families.

Green said the start of Hawaii’s pre-arrivals testing program has brought more than 24,000 travelers “to help restore the economy. This is a huge thing.”

Lynette Eastman, general manager of the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club in Waikiki, said she’s excited to see Hawaii’s economy finally moving forward. Eastman said she’s now been able to bring all but 15 of her 88-member staff back from furloughs.

“I’m at 80% occupancy in October, and my November has improved from 10% to 60%,” Eastman said. “Before the pre-arrivals testing program began, my January occupancy was below 3%; now it’s 30%. I’m cautiously optimistic that things are getting better.”

More important, Green said Hawaii tourism is reopening safely. Post-arrival testing numbers on Hawaii island are “bearing out as well or better than we had hoped,” he said.

Green said the state’s surveillance testing program also will provide officials with more information about potential rates of COVID-19 among travelers to Hawaii. If there is a surge, Green said, the state will adjust its policy again.

State Sen. Glenn Wakai, chairman of the state Senate’s Committee on Economic Development, Tourism and Technology, said he would have preferred that the state finalize the details of its pre-arrivals testing program before it began.

“We just opened our doors and hoped that those that came in by default aren’t going to infect the rest of us,” Wakai said. “We can’t be rolling the dice in public health policy.”

Star-Advertiser reporter Kristen Consillio contributed to this story.

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