Turnout for the city’s free COVID-19 Surge Testing 2.0 program has thus far fallen short of availability, Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced Monday during a news conference at the Waikiki Shell, one of several sites islandwide where the self-administered nasal swab test has been on offer six days a week since Oct. 17.
“We wish we could see lines (here) at the Shell,” he said, turning and waving toward the testing site, with its well-spaced white canopies and tables set up along the sidewalk outside the gates, but at 1:30 p.m., a half-hour before closing, only a handful of people were signing in and taking the tests, for which instructions and oversight are provided by Kahu Malama Nurses at all the program sites.
Regrettably, the mayor said, things weren’t looking good for a move from Honolulu’s current Tier 2 stage of reopening to Tier 3, which would allow social gatherings of 10 people, up from the current limit of five, by Thanksgiving if Oahu’s coronavirus case numbers aren’t rapidly brought down.
On Monday, Oahu recorded 76 new infections since Sunday, and Oahu’s seven-day average case count was also 76 with a positivity rate of 2.9%, Caldwell said.
“To get to Tier 3, you need 49 or fewer cases, you need a positivity rate of 2.5% or less” per week for two consecutive Wednesdays, he added, noting this was looking unlikely for Thanksgiving, but he hoped “we can get there before the Christmas holidays.”
Caldwell entreated members of the public to “step up” for the tests, respect social distancing, limit gatherings and ramp up their mask wearing from the current 80% to the 90-95% recommended by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In order to be able to gather with friends and family during the holidays, he said, Honolulu residents should “hunker down, don’t gather now.”
He warned there was also a chance of returning to the more restrictive Tier 1 should the virus surge in Honolulu as it has been doing on the mainland and elsewhere in the world.
While not a silver bullet, testing (and contact tracing) is another weapon in the arsenal against the virus’ spread, Hiro Toiya, director of the city Department of Emergency Management, said at the news conference, urging that the public take advantage of the free testing.
But as of Saturday only 11,563 tests out of the 28,000 tests available in the surge testing 2.0 program had been performed, leaving 16,437 tests to be done before the program ends Nov. 30, Caldwell said, noting, “We need to be doing an average 1,600 tests a day for the next 10 days, but the daily average thus far has been about 392.”
The purpose of the free testing, stated on the city’s oneoahu.org website, is to ensure the health and well- being of visitor industry workers, first responders, the communities they serve in “as well as individuals who do not have good access to COVID-19 tests” as Hawaii reopened to visitors, allowing incoming airline passengers to bypass the 14-day quarantine with proof of a negative COVID- 19 test taken up to 72 hours before arrival through a state-designated trusted partner.
Caldwell said people are welcome to return and take a second test if their first test was negative, which could mean it was taken so soon after their potential exposure that their viral load had not reached detectable levels.
He advised people return for a second test if they are experiencing any symptoms (listed on the website) or, if they are worried but have no symptoms, after waiting four days, which is, on average, “when the virus starts to shed” and the risk of contagion rises.
Visitors, as well as residents, are welcome to take the free tests, he said.
Caldwell said he would like to see pre-flight testing combined with “a four-day-after-arrival test,” proposing that the city’s new mobile lab at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport could provide post-arrival testing.
“I believe two tests, seven days apart, are safest,” he said, and added he agreed with Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami that travelers should provide proof of negative test results before they arrive in the islands.
Thus far, the city’s airport mobile lab has done 150 tests with a positivity rate of 6.6%, the mayor reported, noting this high rate reflects “the City and County’s sending first responders who are symptomatic or who have come into contact with people who are symptomatic”; free testing at the lab is offered only to first responders and their families, airport workers and city employees; the cost for interisland travelers, for which the lab “will be up and ready tomorrow,” will be $125 per test.
Intended to be easy and accessible, the free test involves picking a location on the calendar at oneoahu.org/covid19-testing, then registering online at doineedacovid19test.com, printing out your voucher and then “you just show up (with your ID and voucher), don’t need a doctor’s slip,” Caldwell said; proof of insurance is not required.
At the news conference, Karen Juan of Kahu Malama Nurses demonstrated the self-administered test, which, she said, is “painless and quick,” taking about 15 minutes.
That includes showing up at your reserved time; receiving a test kit and step-by-step, in-person instructions; opening the swab packet “at the opposite end from the cotton tip — never touch the cotton tip”; pulling down your mask to free your nose while keeping your mouth covered; and inserting the cotton tip into each nostril, drawing circles, for 15 seconds.
“We will help you count,” Juan said, after which you insert the swab in a liquid-filled vial, seal the vial in a labeled plastic bag and drop it in a collection box.
To get started, visit oneoahu.org/covid19-testing.
The mayor concluded on an optimistic note: Overall, in combination with Honolulu’s first surge testing rollout in August and September, launched with the aid of the U.S. surgeon general’s office,”we’ve done almost 73,000 surge tests so far, probably more than any other city of our size, and (Honolulu residents) should be proud.”
That effort, he added, had helped the city develop the logistical expertise to help facilitate the future administration of a COVID-19 vaccine, which he hoped would start within the next six months and which the mobile airport lab could help provide.