Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the state’s surveillance testing program is leaning too heavily on Hawaii island data and falling short of its goal to randomly test 10% of arriving visitors four days after arrival.
During a Thursday news conference, Caldwell said he supports Gov. David Ige’s pre-travel testing program, which as of Oct. 15 allows travelers to Hawaii to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine if they produce an approved negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the final leg of their trip.
But Caldwell said he was only willing to take “some risk in terms of health and safety of the population of Oahu because there was a guarantee, a promise made to all of the mayors, that the state would put in place a robust surveillance testing program.”
Since the program began, the number of travelers arriving in the state has jumped to thousands per day, up from only a few hundred per day. The vast majority of those travelers are coming to Oahu.
“We’ve relied on the promises made and took risks, and that risk now is greater because of the number of cases on the continent and the raging wildfire of COVID-19 and the positivity rate of over 10% compared to ours below 3%,” Caldwell said.
His remarks cast doubt that the state’s surveillance program is accurately measuring the COVID-19 positivity rate of incoming travelers at a time when cases are soaring on the mainland, the origin for most of Hawaii’s visitors.
The mayor’s concerns follow a Nov. 10 request from city Managing Director Roy K. Amemiya Jr. that the state begin providing the county with regular surveillance testing data.
However, Caldwell’s remarks also come at the end of his term as mayor. It’s widely expected that he and Lt. Gov. Josh Green will face off in 2022 for the Democratic nomination for Hawaii governor.
Green, who spoke during a media briefing with Ige on Thursday, acknowledged that the bulk of the surveillance tests — some 15,931 out of 17,270 — have come from Hawaii island and were provided as part of Mayor Harry Kim’s mandatory post-arrival test.
So far, Green said, 616 surveillance tests have been conducted on Oahu, 392 on Maui and 331 on Kauai.
Presenting the numbers to a reporter, Green remarked that Caldwell didn’t have the updated surveillance testing data because the first time it was presented, “Mr. Caldwell was hosting a fundraiser midday for his campaigns.”
“The mayor’s prerogative to complain about things is his own,” Green said. “If he wants to do something about it, he should do what the Big Island has done and test a lot of people.”
But Caldwell questioned the usefulness of the Hawaii island tests, which he said include people arriving from airports where they got a pre-test immediately prior to departure.
“That is not a random pre-selected group of people at every airport. And that is a test done immediately upon arrival in Hawaii. The flight takes about five hours,” Caldwell said. “Well, duh, you’re going to be negative because it takes four to seven days to start shedding (the virus). That is not surveillance of anything, and it’s misleading.”
Green defended incorporating the Hawaii island tests into other surveillance testing data.
“Unfortunately, those who have been critical of it don’t understand the science,” Green said. “People are testing three days before; very rarely is it the same day. Few people will take that risk.”
Green said another reason for using Hawaii island post-arrival tests is that they are readily available.
“We have learned that it’s difficult to get people to come back for a test on day four, especially if they are traveling from the mainland because … they might live in fear of a false positive and they’re going to have to isolate for 10 days,” Green said. “Though a couple thousand people have done it and, of course, our returning residents are more willing to do it.”
Green said the takeaway from the surveillance testing program so far has been that “very few people test negative and then test positive after arrival. It’s not zero but it’s very few.”
Green said only 27 travelers, who were among the 17,270 who took surveillance tests, have tested positive for COVID-19.
Ige has said the state doesn’t have the capacity to require travelers to take a post-arrival test. However, Green said “a same-day arrival test is valuable and would be welcome if the mayor of Honolulu or others wanted to do it.”
“If they have the resources for it, it gives us more safety, more security,” he said. “Again, nothing is perfect, but it’s more than any other state is doing. And also, scientifically, there are some false negatives that can occur. This gives us another bite at the apple.”