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Pretravel testing program pushed to Sept. 1

Spikes in COVID-19 cases in Hawaii and the Mainland, force governor to postpone

A Hawaiian Airlines jet passes over idled rental cars on its approach to Kahului Airport on Wednesday morning. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Gov. David Ige said Monday that the pretravel testing program will be pushed back to Sept. 1, pointing to a record amount of cases in Hawaii over the weekend, surges in key Mainland states and a break in the supply chain of COVID-19 testing kits.

The program originally set for Aug. 1 provides a way to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day travel quarantine for travelers who prove a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure.

“It was a choice between two difficult options,” Ige said during an news conference on Oahu on Monday. “On one hand, we continue to move forward and reopen our economy but risk an uncontrolled surge of COVID-19 cases. On the other hand, we could delay the pretravel test program and risk further damage to our economy. Let me make this clear the mayors and I fully understand the gravity of those choices before us.”

The highly anticipated update on the travel program comes less than three weeks after it was unveiled. Since then, surges have happened across the nation, including in key states that feed Hawaii’s visitor industry.

Mayor Michael Victorino said during a county news conference that spikes on the Mainland have been “tremendous.”

A Hawaiian Airlines jet makea a final approach to the runway at Kahului Airport last week.

“There have been record amount of new cases throughout many parts of the United States, for example, California, Texas, Florida . . . along with Oregon, Alabama, Georgia and others,” he said. “We feel it’s very prudent on our part that by reopening, or at least setting a tentative date of Sept. 1 for reopening, ensures that some of the states that we have high volume of traffic (from), such as California and Oregon, will by that time have made a great effort to contain the COVID-19 and lessen the number of cases, if not eliminate as many as possible.”

The Mainland outbreaks are impacting the state’s testing supply, Ige said. A recent interruption forced the state to send samples to the Mainland for results, which means a week to 10 days in turnaround time.

“That really does not work for us being able to respond to and contain the virus once we identify those who are infected,” Ige said during a meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness on Monday morning.

Meanwhile, small businesses and other tourism-reliant sectors that are planning reopening measures to coincide with Aug. 1 will suffer even more setbacks.

After Ige’s announcement, Chamber of Commerce Hawaii issued a call for the state and county to deploy stabilization funds to help businesses survive the delay.

“We understand the need to put safety first, but the situation for many local businesses grows more dire by the day,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, Chamber of Commerce Hawaii president and CEO said in a news release. “Businesses are doing their part to enforce safety measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. They should be able to count on government to set a clear path forward toward economic stabilization and recovery.”

Chris Tatum of the Hawaii Tourism Authority said during the committee meeting that the idea of traveling is not top of mind for many people.

Tatum cited a Destination Analysis survey that said perceptions of travel activities being unsafe are the highest they have been since the week of April 27. Also, 40.6 percent of American travelers said they won’t plan a leisure trip for 2020.

“People are still a little hesitant about traveling,” he said. “It will be a process and it will be a ramp up. When the time comes, the hotel industry will be ready. We just need to make sure we communicate the right message.”

Ige said state and county leaders still “believe in” the pretravel testing program and that they are making advances to find testing sites and partners, which will be announced leading up to the program’s launch.

The program will require that all travelers, including children of all ages, comply with the rules, according to a state news release. Travelers must pay for test costs. The test must be a nucleic acid amplification test, or NATT test, done at a federally certified lab. If test results aren’t available by arrival, the traveler will remain in quarantine until results are received and verified. No commercial testing will be offered at state airports.

In recent weeks Hawaii has seen an increase in COVID-19 case counts, which was anticipated once the state reopened its kamaaina economy, leaders said during the House committee meeting.

Most of the 86 additional cases recorded since Friday are in previous clusters associated with “community spread,” health officials said in the release. For example, a total of 44 cases are associated with a training activity at Hawaiian Airlines, in which a person infected during these meetings is linked to a cluster of 20 cases involving two Oahu gyms.

“This clearly shows how easily and quickly this virus can spread from person to person and from place to place when people are not practicing physical distancing, not wearing masks, not staying home when sick and possibly not washing their hands frequently and thoroughly,” state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said in the release.

Saturday had 42 new cases, the highest single-day total since tracking began Feb. 28.

On Monday, state health officials reported that three more Hawaii residents had died recently as a result of COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 22.

The state still has the lowest fatality rate in the nation, state Health Director Dr. Bruce Anderson said during the news conference Monday.

Recent deaths reported Monday by state health officials include a Kauai resident who died in Arizona on an unreported date after months of receiving treatment for underlying medical conditions; an Oahu female who had previously been a resident of a care home and died July 12; and an elderly Oahu man with underlying health conditions who died July 7.

The state tallied 23 new cases Monday, including 19 on Oahu, one on Hawaii island, one in Maui County and two residents diagnosed out of state.

Maui County currently has 12 active cases, all of which are in isolation. In April, the county had over 50 active cases, county officials said.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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