Hawaii officials weigh testing options for out-of-state visitors

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Hawaii is considering a plan in which travelers who complete a health screening and a Covid-19 test prior to departure will be able to skip the 14-day quarantine for new arrivals.
Hawaii is considering a plan in which travelers who complete a health screening and a Covid-19 test prior to departure will be able to skip the 14-day quarantine for new arrivals. Photo Credit: HTA/Ron Garnett

It is increasingly likely that those wishing to travel to Hawaii in the near future will be subject to Covid-19 testing, especially if they want to avoid long quarantine periods, state lawmakers and officials have indicated in recent weeks.

On June 16, a 14-day mandatory self-quarantine was lifted for people traveling within the Hawaiian Islands, but Gov. David Ige left the quarantine in effect for all out-of-state arrivals at least through July 31. In the coming weeks, state officials will test strategies for monitoring Covid-19 infections among interisland travelers to find a system that works for when Hawaii fully reopens to tourism and all visitors. 

One idea gathering steam comes from a team from University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, the East-West Center, and a University of Hawaii epidemiologist who determined almost two thirds of infected mainland passengers would slip through the cracks without pre-testing, based on national infection rates and testing capabilities. Their plan, outlined in a June 9 report, calls for travelers to the islands to both clear temperature and symptom screening in their departure city as well as a Covid-19 test prior to departure. If both tests come back negative, the person would be able to skip the 14-day quarantine. 

Using the test for infection in addition to screening and temperature checks "removes 80%to 90% of infectious passengers from flights to Hawaii," the report claims.  

Since the quarantine and other measures have been in place, daily arrivals at Hawaii airports have fallen from roughly 30,000 to 1,000, a few hundred of which are typically leisure travelers. Meanwhile, as of April, more than 200,000 Hawaii residents had applied for unemployment, approximately a third of the private workforce.  

Ige and his administration are working on a reopening plan, but coordinating federal, state and county authorities with airlines and other private entities has been challenging.

"We can't have those subject to quarantine intermingling with those who are not, and being able to identify which travelers would be subject to which requirements will become increasingly complex," Ige said at a June 15 press conference. "We'll announce a date when we are ready to."

While officials do not expect an immediate return to previous tourism levels, even 6,000 incoming travelers per day could quickly lead to spikes in coronavirus infections if adequate measures are not in place, the report's authors say.

"If Hawaii reopens to tourism, even at 20% of previous levels, hundreds of people with active Covid-19 infections can be expected to enter each month," the report states. "This will make it hard, if not impossible, to maintain our success against this epidemic and may push us past the tipping point."

While the testing would be voluntary, the idea is that the chance to skip the 14-day quarantine, during which people are not allowed to leave their accommodations or residence for anything but a medical emergency, would incentivize participation.

"Testing travelers coming to our Islands is essential to keeping us an attractive, Covid-safe destination for tourists and to achieving a strong Hawaii economy," the report's authors conclude.

One issue that must be resolved to implement testing is that general guidelines call for people to be tested if they have symptoms or meet other criteria that leads a doctor to recommend the test.

In a social media update on June 9, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the state is in talks with CVS to provide the tests.

"We're working very hard to make sure that we can do a test and then get rid of the quarantine," Green said. "Right now, it's looking pretty good to do this  So this will make it safer to come to Hawaii, we won't have to worry about a surge, and for every month that we open the economy sooner, we save 50,000 people from being stuck on unemployment."

The tests are expected to cost roughly $120 each, and Green said the state is exploring the idea of subsidizing the cost for Hawaii visitors, arguing that it could be a relatively small investment if it means getting Hawaii's workers back on the job and the state's No. 1 industry rebooted.

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