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Post-arrivals test urged to shorten quarantine for travelers

The House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness is recommending allowing travelers who arrive with pending COVID-19 results the chance to shorten their quarantine by taking a rapid post-arrival test.

Committee members unveiled the proposed modification to Safe Travels Hawaii, the state’s COVID-19 pre-arrival testing and traveler screening program, during a meeting Monday with the four county mayors.

Committee members said they want Gov. David Ige and the four county mayors to allow travelers who have “diligently complied with the 72-hour pre-arrival testing requirement but do not have a result in hand prior to their departure to be exempt from the self-quarantine requirement if they have a negative rapid test result completed upon arrival in Hawaii and produce a negative result from their original pre-travel test when received.”

The House committee’s recommendation is meant to replace the most recent Safe Travels modification, which committee members said has had unintended economic consequences and has created enforcement challenges. As of Nov. 24, trans-Pacific travelers to Hawaii who cannot present evidence of a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival in the islands have not been allowed to bypass the 14-day quarantine once their test results are received.

The tenor of the House committee’s discussion also suggested that members hoped their “white paper” might persuade Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami to reconsider his decision to opt out of Safe Travels Hawaii, a measure that starts Wednesday.

“So far, the (Safe Travels) program is working, and with a few enhancements, the committee believes it can be improved and some of the confusion about the program can be eliminated,” House Speaker Scott K. Saiki said in a statement.

The House committee’s recommendation follows prior Safe Travels change requests to Ige from the county mayors and Lt. Gov. Josh Green. Requests from Green, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Maui Mayor Mike Victorino and Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim are still pending. Ige already has approved Kawakami’s request, which means as of Wednesday trans-Pacific and intercounty travelers arriving in Kauai are subject to the 14-day quarantine regardless of testing.

“The unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases on the mainland and the rise in community spread on Kauai are of significant concern for the Garden Isle,” Ige said in a statement. “We must protect Kauai residents and visitors and ensure that the island’s hospitals do not become overwhelmed.”

However, House committee members Dr. Mark Mugiishi, Hawaii Medical Service Association president and CEO, and Raymond Vara, Hawaii Pacific Health president and CEO, said Safe Travels data showed that Kauai was coping.

“From an absolute numbers standpoint, I don’t think (Kauai’s) numbers are frightening,” Mugiishi said.

Vara, who represents the operator of Kauai’s Wilcox Memorial Hospital, said there are not any patients with COVID-19 in Wilcox and that the system is not constrained.

“The current situation is such that it seems like you all can manage it, and extremely well, up until this point,” Vara said. “There’s no reason to believe that that wouldn’t continue into the future. It looks like even with the pre-travel test program that you’ve been able to manage.”

Kawakami said he agreed that Safe Travels has “absolutely worked for the state,” but Kauai’s experiences show that “one-size-fits-all” policies don’t work when it comes to the counties.

Kawakami said Kauai had only 61 COVID-19 cases in the months leading up to the Oct. 15 start of Safe Travels. Kawakami said in the six weeks following the launch, the county has had 70 COVID- 19 cases, 57 of them travel-related.

“If you folks think that it is a success story for Kauai based on those numbers, then you can correct me,” he said.

Vara told Kawakami that he would “never second-guess” the mayor’s decisions. However, Vara said that “the tea leaves still tell me, based on the data that we see, that the program is working thus far. And because of what’s going on in the mainland, the incremental steps associated with this white paper would seem to make sense.”

In response, Kawakami said, “We are trying to quickly do whatever we can to make sure we don’t see a surge. And, that’s why I think we are battling hard … but if you are telling me that Wilcox and the hospitals can handle more, hey, let me know how much more.”

Green, who is in charge of Hawaii’s pre-arrival testing program, didn’t participate in the committee meeting. After the meeting he shared that Wilcox has only nine ICU beds but is able to flex up to 20 if needed. He added that Wilcox also has the support of other Hawaii Pacific Health hospitals, including Kapiolani, Pali Momi and Straub.

“It will be incumbent on Mayor Kawakami to think through what was said in the committee and make a decision on whether he has to rethink his request,” said Green, who is an emergency room doctor. “They have more than enough health care, but we have sufficiently prevented a surge with Safe Travels.”

Green said leaders had expected Hawaii would see a 20% surge in COVID-19 cases with the start of the pre-arrival testing program. However, he said statewide numbers are actually slightly down.

On Oct. 14, the day before Hawaii started the pre-arrival testing program, Green said there were 101 new COVID-19 cases and 1,267 active cases. The positivity rate was 2.8%, and the seven-day average of cases was 92. He said there were 105 people in the hospital with COVID-19.

Green said Monday brought 85 new COVID-19 infections for a total of 1,287 active cases. The positivity rate Monday was 2.2%, and the seven-day average of new cases was 75, he said. There were 53 people hospitalized with COVID-19, he said.

According to the state Department of Health, from Oct. 15 to Nov. 27, there were 101 travel-related cases on Oahu, 73 on Hawaii island, 67 on Maui and 58 on Kauai.

“I think we are doing well. I’m not saying that we can’t do better, but we have the lowest rate in the country, which is a good place to be,” Green said.

Still, he’s asked Ige for his own tweaks to build extra layers of security into the Safe Travels Hawaii program.

Green wants to extend the pre-arrival testing window to four days, up from three, to give travelers a better chance of receiving their tests.

He’s also asked to add a requirement that travelers who want to bypass the 14-day quarantine must also take a post-arrival rapid antigen test at the airport.

Green said stretching the test result deadline by another day or two presents a “very small incremental extra risk, but then if you couple it with arrival testing like the mayors want, it gives you a really good one-two punch to protect ourselves from a surge.”

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