Thousands of travelers arriving in Hawaii during the first week of the state’s pre-arrivals testing program have gotten stuck quarantining in paradise because their test results needed a manual review.
The pre-arrivals testing program, which began Oct. 15, allows travelers to bypass a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine that’s been in place for travelers to Hawaii since March 26. To participate, travelers must provide written confirmation from a state-approved COVID-19 testing partner of a negative test result from a test administered to the traveler within 72 hours of the final leg of departure.
However, at least 3,700 travelers to Hawaii whose test results uploaded after they arrived have received status updates on the Safe Travels Hawaii platform saying that their results had to be reviewed manually. State Office of Enterprise Technology Services Caroline Julian-Freitas said the process “can take up to three or four days.”
Hawaii expatriate Art Miller was stuck in quarantine on Maui for about 72 hours before finding someone at the state who could release him. Like many other visitors in the same boat, he even went back to the airport looking for help that couldn’t be found since screeners work in a secure area.
“It was nice going out into the Maui sunshine today,” Miller told the Star-Advertiser on Thursday. “The water had been looking so inviting. I finally jumped in near Black Rock at Kaanapali Beach — it was just wonderful.”
Miller said it was frustrating to be in limbo so long, especially after going to great lengths to be allowed to bypass the quarantine. He’d been in Singapore, so he flew into Los Angeles so he could get tested before coming to Hawaii, which currently only accepts COVID-19 tests from U.S.-trusted partners.
Even with all that preparation, Miller’s test result lagged his arrival by about three hours. He said he understood that he’d have to quarantine until the test came in, but was dumbfounded when the platform marked his test for manual verification. He then joined a growing backlog of travelers in Hawaii’s pre-arrivals testing program who were struggling to get out of quarantine.
Julian-Freitas said the state cleared about 2,500 of the tests that needed manual verification over the weekend, and as of late Wednesday still had about 1,200 tests to go.
“The large number of the tests that needed to be reviewed was caused by the addition of travel partners and the grace period in which the state was allowing visitors with nontrusted partners to upload their negative test results,” Julian-Freitas said.
“We have increased our staffing to get through the backlog and now have about 40 people working on the issue. Along with uploading nontrusted partners’ test results, we’ve discovered that people have been sending screen shots, when the instruction states only PDFs are accepted, as well as poor-quality documents,” she said.
Hawaii officials were largely unprepared for the 37,883 travelers who arrived in the state during the first four days of the reopening of tourism. Of those, ETS data shows 22,138 were exempted from the quarantine by a COVID-19 test. Another 4,697 had to quarantine because they hadn’t taken a test, their test results had not arrived or, like Miller, their tests required additional verification.
Because of the last-minute changes that accompanied Hawaii’s tourism reopening, during the first four days, Hawaii officials allowed some travelers who had tested negative for the virus to bypass the quarantine even though their approved tests hadn’t come from trusted partners.
That grace period ended Monday. Travelers to Hawaii who want to bypass the quarantine must now ensure that they have gotten a test from one of Hawaii’s trusted testing partners. The list, which is constantly updated, can be found at hawaiicovid19.com/travel/getting-to-hawaii.
As it turns out, the onus for getting Hawaii’s pre-arrivals testing program right mostly falls back onto the visitor. The state delayed the start of the program three times but still opened with kinks to address.
In addition to testing- verification issues, some visitors are complaining that they can’t find trusted testing partners near them, especially domestic travelers who live beyond the West Coast.
With testing protocol and testing partners constantly changing, some travelers haven’t been nimble enough to respond to last-minute adjustments. For instance, Hawaiian Airlines plans to offer same-day testing drive-thru sites in some markets but didn’t have the sites open by Oct. 15.
Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said Thursday that Hawaiian Airlines guests can make appointments for drive-thru COVID-19 tests near San Francisco International Airport beginning at 6 a.m. today at www.hawaiian airlines.com/COVIDTesting. The carrier is moving forward with plans to provide guests with exclusive access to drive-thru, pre-travel COVID-19 tests near Los Angeles as well.
Da Silva said Hawaiian also is ensuring that guests know about other testing options, including the Vault Health mail-in saliva test that became available for ordering on Oct. 1 — soon after Hawaii confirmed the Oct. 15 launch date for its pre-travel testing program.
Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Oakland International Airport, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines also have joined Hawaii’s trusted testing partners and can provide customers with testing information.
Mauna Lani Resort in Kona, which is slated to reopen Nov. 15, announced Wednesday that it would become the first Hawaii resort to partner with Vault. Guests will pay $150 for the minimally invasive saliva tests, which can be taken at home with Zoom support from Vault Health, www.vault health.com/covid.
Health care testing partners on Hawaii’s list were last updated Wednesday. They include AFC Urgent Care Portland, Bartell Drugs, Carbon Health, CityHealth Urgent Care, Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii, Color, CVS Health, Diagnostic Laboratory Services, Discovery Health MD, Hawaii Pacific Health, Kaiser Permanente, Minit Medical, Quest Diagnostics, Urgent Care Hawaii, Vault Health and Walgreens.
But it’s not just finding a trusted testing partner that’s creating problems for travelers. The narrow 72-hour testing window also has challenged some passengers, who have arrived in Hawaii still awaiting their test results and must quarantine until they get them uploaded and approved on the Hawaii Safe Travels platform.
Travelers with last-minute plans might find it especially difficult to meet all of Hawaii’s testing requirements.
TV personality Lanai Tabura found it difficult to get back into Hawaii after six weeks of shooting “The Great Food Truck Race All Stars” for Food Network.
“This selected or trusted travel partners thing is not working because if Walgreens offers (the test) to you, if there are 500 Walgreens in San Francisco, like three of them offer tests. I’m exaggerating, but you have to go and hunt for these places,” he said. “The closest reservation that I could find was a week out from my trip, and you need 72 hours before. I finally found a lab that could give me a test, but it was almost an hour away.”
Tabura said he uploaded his COVID-19 test on the day of traveling to Hawaii, and the site said it was accepted.
“But when I landed, no test was inside of the upload, and I even screen-shot it to show that it uploaded,” he said.
The irony is that Tabura already had taken and passed about seven COVID-19 tests over the past six weeks for Food Network. None of them counted upon his return to Hawaii since they weren’t processed by one of the state’s trusted testing partners.
“I’m all for opening up the state again, and I’m all for being safe again, but this is a nightmare,” he said. “If we want to make this an easy thing to rebuild our economy, it’s going to be tough. We have a long road, and there are so many clumps in it, so many hurdles in it.”