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Mayors seek travel rule changes amid surging coronavirus cases

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                A man walks along the empty walkway of Terminal 2 at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Sunday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A man walks along the empty walkway of Terminal 2 at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Sunday.

The county mayors are proposing travel-related rule changes amid surging COVID-19 cases on the mainland and Hawaii, but so far their requests are just piling up on Gov. David Ige’s desk.

Kauai County Mayor Derek Kawakami was alone in taking the controversial step Tuesday of requesting to temporarily opt out of the state’s pre-arrival traveler testing program. But the other county mayors have asked for tweaks of their own. So far, Ige hasn’t formally announced a decision on any of their requests.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is proposing using a combination of post-arrival testing and phone tracking to allow travelers to test out of quarantine or considerably shorten their time in lockdown.

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino wants permission to require that travelers coming to Maui as part of the state’s pre-arrival testing program must take a post-arrival test 72 to 96 hours after they arrive. Until that second test comes back, Victorino is thinking of making travelers quarantine in a resort bubble with geo-tracking.

“They could have the run of the house, but only like what we’ve done with the film industry,” Victorino said during a Wednesday media briefing. “They stay there, they work there, they’re tested there and then if anything breaks out it’s contained within that facility or that hotel or that resort.”

Kawakami has said five resorts on Kauai already have been approved to operate resort bubbles.

Since Oct. 15, when Hawaii began allowing travelers to skip the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine with a negative COVID test, more than 380,000 people have traveled to the islands or between islands. About 70% of the travelers are visitors, and about 88% of the travelers have avoided quarantine by having a negative test result or because they are exempted.

The state grants exemptions for certain travelers, including transit passengers, airline crew, critical infrastructure workers, military and federal government employees.

Mayor Harry Kim said he’s appealed to Ige to scrutinize the state’s policies in regard to issuing limited quarantine exemptions to critical workers and others. Kim said Ige recently began requiring such travelers to take a post-arrival test, but Kim thinks they should also take a pre-arrival test.

Kim also has urged Ige to take the broad swath of data that Hawaii island has collected from its mandatory post-arrival test and evaluate loopholes in the “Safe Travels Hawaii” program.

“We have enough data to show all of the loopholes in the (Safe Travels Hawaii) system,” Kim said. “It allows too many to come here that may be infected, and that needs to be corrected.”

The Safe Travels program has come under fire as mainland infections surge, along with travel-related cases of COVID-19 in Hawaii.

Travel-related COVID-19 infections are still rare in Hawaii, where the visitor industry has worked hard to create new safety policies and cleaning protocols aimed at keeping residents and tourists healthy.

However, the percentage of travel-related COVID-19 cases has more than quadrupled since the state welcomed back nonessential travelers in October, according to data released Tuesday by the state Department of Health. State health officials said Tuesday that 13% of Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases were travel-related so far in November, up from 3% in October.

Kawakami, who envisions opting out of the state’s pre-arrival testing program for at least four weeks, said he’s not lobbying for a statewide incentive.

“As mayor of Kauai, I only propose rules that are pertinent to Kauai and the resources that we have,” he said. “I don’t like our efforts being generalized with what is happening in different counties or in the state. … I think we have a unique situation in that a majority of cases are travel-related and, up until recently, we haven’t seen community spread.”

Caldwell said he has proposed new travel-related rules to address the public safety and economic concerns that have emerged since Ige’s latest order. That order, which took effect Tuesday, said trans-Pacific passengers to Hawaii who took a test on the mainland but haven’t gotten the results yet won’t be able to bypass the 14-day quarantine, even after their test results become available.

Kawakami and Kim lobbied for and supported the state’s decision to quit allowing travelers who arrived with pending tests to get out of quarantine. But Caldwell said he expects Ige’s shift will mean more travelers will arrive in Hawaii needing to quarantine, which could outstrip the county’s enforcement resources.

Caldwell said he wants Ige to agree to let him offer Oahu travelers the chance to take a post-arrival test to get out of quarantine. These travelers would download a mobile phone tracking device and quarantine until they met state and county requirements.

Caldwell said the city’s post-arrival test would be free for travelers who took a pre-arrival COVID-19 test. They’d likely have to quarantine for about three hours before getting the results.

“We do know a chunk of (visitors) are going into quarantine, and that number grows because you’ve got to quarantine for 14 days, so it keeps adding up,” Caldwell said. “There’s no way the Honolulu Police Department can make calls three times a day or knock on doors three times a day. If people are getting out of quarantine after four days instead of 14, that number remains more manageable for enforcement reasons. And, there’s more protection with two tests in four days than one test three days before you arrive.”

Caldwell also has asked Ige to require that travelers who have obtained a limited quarantine exemption, which doesn’t include a pre-arrival COVID-19 screening, to get a test. Caldwell said the county would not pay for these tests; however, he expects their costs would be covered by the traveler’s health insurance or employer.

The mayors from all of Hawaii’s counties have said they hoped that the state would reevaluate its surveillance testing program, which began shortly after the state launched its pre-arrival testing program.

“Yes, we have some concerns. We hope to make improvements and changes,” Victorino said.

The bulk of the surveillance tests — some 15,931 out of 17,270 — have come from Hawaii island and were provided as part of Kim’s mandatory post-arrival test. Only another 616 surveillance tests were conducted on Oahu, 392 on Maui and 331 on Kauai.

“If they are using our testing for their purposes, it would not meet their needs. It’s counterproductive of achieving that goal if you are using our figures to test something that should have been gathering three or four days after, and for some of ours, it’s only one or two days after, which makes a big difference,” Kim said. “If you look at our testing and the holes in it, it shows that.”

Caldwell said the surveillance testing program leaned too heavily on Hawaii island data and fell short of its goal to randomly test 10% of arriving visitors four days after arrival.

“There’s growing concern given the positivity rate on the continent. (Also,) the surveillance testing that was promised was not conducted properly, and therefore the results that are being reported may not be accurate results,” he said.

The Safe Travels Hawaii COVID-19 Evaluation Testing Program announced Wednesday that it had finished collecting data. Since the program’s launch on Oct. 19 to Tuesday, 45 positive COVID-19 cases were identified out of 20,253 tests for a positivity rate of 2.2 cases per 1,000 tests.

Caldwell said he is not confident in the figures. Still, he expressed disappointment that the program wasn’t running through the end of the year, “as the county mayors were promised.”

“We’ll be in the dark going forward,” Caldwell said.

Kim and Caldwell also said they were uncomfortable with the large numbers of arriving passengers that the state is continuing to allow into Hawaii under an exemption program that doesn’t require participation in Hawaii’s pre-arrival testing program.

“The people who are exempt from any type of quarantine numbered approximately 20% to 25% of any group coming in at any time. The number is in the thousands that aren’t tested or quarantined,” Kim said. “We’ve had more than one case where a doctor or nurse coming here was given an exemption and then worked in a hospital or clinic and later found out they were positive. It’s more important that we require essential workers, who work in medical fields and other important areas, to get tested.”

Victorino, Caldwell and Kim said they were dissatisfied with Safe Travels Hawaii, but none of them were ready to leave the program.

Victorino said, “I’m not exactly ready to opt out. We are looking and watching very closely, and if the numbers hit certain points on our tier chart, we might consider going from where we are now to maybe a ‘safe at home, stay at home.’”

Caldwell said that “opting out is not under consideration at this point. What is under consideration is more testing to keep us all healthy and welcome more visitors back.”

Kim said pulling out of Safe Travels Hawaii wasn’t a viable option for Hawaii island, either, since it “won’t solve the problem” as long as the “quarantine is unenforceable.”

“Kauai might have a good handle on enforcing their quarantine system, but I don’t think the rest of us have,” Kim said.

 

SAFE TRAVELS SNAPSHOT

Since Oct. 15, Safe Travels has allowed Hawaii to reopen to nonessential trans-Pacific travelers by providing them with an opportunity to test out of the state’s mandatory 14-day traveler quarantine.

>> From its start through Wednesday, Safe Travels had screened 383,239 travelers, including 268,575 visitors.

>> Some 340,422, or approximately 88%, of the travelers screened by Safe Travels Hawaii were granted quarantine exemptions.

>> Roughly, 261,057 travelers, 77% of those granted exemptions Oct. 15-Nov. 23, earned them on the basis of a negative COVID-19 test.

>> During the same time period, the state allowed another 79,365 travelers, who made up roughly 23% of the exemptions granted, to bypass at least a portion of the quarantine without taking a pre-arrival COVID-19 test. Travelers who were granted nontesting exemptions included transit passengers, airline crew, critical infrastructure workers, military, federal government employees and students.

Source: Safe Travels Hawaii dashboard

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