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Confusion continues to surround traveler testing plans

A testing solution to facilitate interisland travel could be unveiled next week, but it might not involve Hilo International Airport, said Mayor Harry Kim on Monday.

Kim announced last week that out-of-state travelers arriving at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport will be able to skip the mandatory 14-day quarantine with a negative result from both a pre-flight COVID-19 test on the mainland and a free rapid-response COVID-19 antigen test at the airport itself.

However, the announcement left many scratching their heads, with some unsure of how the state’s several testing protocols will work together when they take effect Thursday. For example, the Kailua-Kona post-flight test will only be available for out-of-state travelers, and mandatory quarantines are still required for interisland travelers arriving on any non-Oahu island.

“We’re all trying to find a way to address the interisland travel quarantine,” Kim said. “Hopefully next week, we’ll have a plan for that we’ll be able to share.”

Kim said whatever plan will be unveiled might not necessarily include testing at Hilo International Airport, explaining that the Kona airport tests alone will cost $3.5 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, and will likely only last until December.

Because there are currently no plans to include post-flight tests in Hilo, any out-of-state travelers arriving in Hilo via a connecting flight from Honolulu or any other neighbor island will have no testing recourse, and will have to quarantine for two weeks.

While no trans-Pacific flights are currently arriving at Hilo International Airport, interisland flights are still arriving regularly, with all passengers required to obey the 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

Kim said the post-flight tests are being implemented simply to better protect public health, particularly as the island prepares for an influx of travelers this week.

Based on airline ticket sales, Kim said the county anticipates an increase in airline arrivals of 300%-400% starting Thursday — substantially less traffic than before the pandemic, but still enough to cause COVID-19 case numbers to explode if care is not taken.

One airline, Kim said, is expecting to jump from fewer than 100 travelers per flight to the Big Island to more than 450 passengers after Thursday.

“All the health and testing experts say that just having one test is inadequate,” Kim said. “People ask me if the second test will make us safer. I say no, it just makes the risk acceptable.”

Even so, some officials questioned the legality and wisdom of the post-flight testing during a Monday meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness.

Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of Hawaii Medical Service Association, said he is unsure whether the state or county can mandate a second test to avoid quarantine.

“It doesn’t seem like it would pass … U.S. Constitutional muster, right?” Mugiishi wondered. “We’re not allowed to mandate any kind of treatment or testing.”

While receiving a positive result from a post-flight test does not directly necessitate a quarantine, the patient is immediately administered a second test — a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, considered to be more accurate than the antigen test — and must quarantine at their hotel or residence until that test’s results are received.

Other officials at the meeting lamented that the details of the county’s reopening strategy are still being revealed at such a late date.

“What we’re hearing right now is continued confusion, right?” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. “No one seems to know exactly what the rules are, and we’re three days from when we’re supposed to be accepting visitors under a new set of rules that are still being worked out. And all we’re doing is, really, prolonging the pain because we can’t come up with a set of guidelines to make this happen.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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