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County’s post-travel testing launches with over 400 swabs

Travelers say they don’t mind extra step; variant strains are focus for officials

After deplaning at Kahului Airport, travelers line up Tuesday to provide proof of vaccination to bypass a post-arrival rapid test. Trans-Pacific travelers with proof of full vaccinations completed at least 14 days before arrival, along with intercounty travelers, are exempt from the second test. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photos

KAHULUI — In years past, trans-Pacific travelers touching down at Maui’s main airport would be greeted with lei.

Flash-forward more than a year into the pandemic and people immediately after deplaning at Kahului Airport are receiving a second COVID-19 rapid test, though many say they don’t mind.

“I’m here to follow the rules,” said Cuong Chan, a visitor from Dallas who was among the first to take the post-arrival test. “I want to keep everybody safe. I want to keep especially the locals safe so that we can have a good time and not worry about it. I don’t want what’s happening in India to happen anywhere else.”

The County of Maui on Tuesday launched its post-arrival rapid COVID-19 antigen testing program at Kahului Airport, aimed at “protecting residents against COVID variants.” The county contracted Doctors of Waikiki to manage and administer the program at a cost of $25 per test, not to exceed 124,000 tests.

Dr. Alan Wu, Doctors of Waikiki medical director and co-founder, said later in the day that 441 tests were administered and 220 trans-Pacific travelers were exempt due to proof of full vaccinations Tuesday. The county reported that no positive results were detected on the first day of the program.

Josephine Lau, a Los Angeles resident, was among the first trans-Pacific travelers to undergo a post-arrival rapid test at Kahului Airport on Tuesday, a new county program aimed at “protecting residents from COVID variants.” Lau said she didn’t mind the second test and that people were friendly and nice.

“We’re doing what we call the phase one of post-arrival testing on Maui,” Wu said. “People coming to Hawaii already have the Safe Travels program; we want to add another layer of safety.”

Wu said variant strains are the highest concern right now.

“Currently we’re really concerned with the Brazilian variant,” Wu said. “Soon we will see traces of the Indian variant, which is a super-variant right now. . . . We want to make sure we contain it before it spreads to the community.”

Last month, state health officials said more than 80 percent of Maui’s cases were tied to two California variant strains. Maui County last month had the highest rate per capita in the state of cases linked to variant strains.

Also in recent months, Maui County’s visitor arrival numbers have been rivaling those of Oahu, which before the pandemic typically saw about double the travelers that Maui had, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

Wu

Wu said that his team of about 50 plan to test about 600 travelers during the program’s initial rollout.

“Our goal is to ramp up to about 4,000 or 5,000 tests a day by next week,” he said.

Trans-Pacific travelers comprising visitors and returning residents had warm reactions to the second test on Tuesday. Of more than 10 people interviewed by The Maui News, all said they didn’t mind the extra time and effort to take the test or to show proof of vaccination.

“I think it’s necessary because it’s for the safety of the island,” said Josephine Lau, who’s visiting Maui from Los Angeles for a week. “I think if that’s what needs to be done for us to be able to enter and have a safe environment, I think it’s good.”

Lau had her vaccination completed fewer than 14 days ago, so she was subject to the second test, which she said she didn’t mind because “everyone is friendly and nice.”

Doctors of Waikiki lab technician Heather Hakes finds the results of a post-arrival rapid COVID-19 antigen test on Tuesday at Kahului Airport. Doctors of Waikiki is contracted by the County of Maui to manage and administer the tests, which were rolled out Tuesday. Dr. Alan Wu, its medical director and co-founder, said 441 tests were administered and 220 passengers were exempt with vaccinations on Tuesday.

Damon Glastetter, a returning Maui resident who bypassed the second test with proof of vaccination, said the line moved quickly.

Malachi Peterson, another returning Maui resident who bypassed the second test with his vaccine card, said Maui’s program is an incentive for others to get vaccinated.

Kurtis Klein, who’s visiting with his wife from Dallas, said the pre-travel and post-arrival testing programs did not deter them from coming to Maui. He said the pre-travel process “is simple” but that some traveling to Hawaii don’t know about it.

“We have friends who are coming to the islands and we had to tell them to look at the (state Safe Travels) website,” he said. “More public education on the Mainland may be good. I would hate to think of someone coming over here, not knowing you have to do all this.”

Bree Flores, who was traveling with her partner and kids from San Diego, said the rules were not a deterrent and that the program “makes her feel safer.”

“It was fine,” she said. “It was smooth.”

After landing, trans-Pacific travelers were directed to the outdoor screening area near the baggage claim end of the airport.

A line snaked under a tent and filtered into a corridor, where people who had proof of full vaccinations completed at least 14 days before arriving were exempt from the test. Intercounty travelers are also exempt from the second test.

People subject to testing scanned a QR code to register and moved to another aisle to take the rapid test by self-swabbing a nostril at one of 20 testing stations. Then, they were allowed to leave while awaiting digital results available in 15 minutes.

If a traveler received a positive result, the person would return to the baggage claim to take a confirmatory PCR test at the airport testing facility, the county said in a news release.

Individuals will be required to complete the full 10-day self-quarantine at their own expense if they refuse a confirmatory test or if the confirmatory test produces a positive result.

Finance Director Scott Teruya said Tuesday that the county contracted Doctors of Waikiki at the cost of $25 per test, which includes the test itself and the administering of the test. The contract, which may be ended at any time, specifies that tests will not exceed 124,000.

He said the program is being funded by multiple sources, including federal money from the CARES Act and county money from the general and emergency funds. Teruya said he did not have an estimate on the remaining CARES Act funds.

“The program’s total cost is contingent upon the duration of the program, number of tests administered and the percentage of fully-vaccinated travelers exempted from the post-arrival test,” the county said in a news release Tuesday. “Governor Ige’s 18th proclamation mandates that any test administered after arrival into the state shall be paid for, and administered by, the county.”

Maui County’s second test is being administered in addition to the state’s Safe Travels program, which requires proof of a negative COVID-19 nucleic acid amplification test from a trusted partner taken within 72 hours of departure in order for travelers to bypass quarantine. That program launched Oct. 15 as a way to reopen tourism.

Starting this Tuesday, the state’s Safe Travels program will allow fully vaccinated residents who were vaccinated in Hawaii to skip pre-travel testing when traveling between counties. Vaccination records may be uploaded to the Safe Travels program any time after Friday.

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

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