County to end post-travel test program Friday

Low positivity rate, high vaccinations cited as successes

Maui County Finance Director Scott Teruya (right) directs Los Angeles resident Josephine Lau during the launch of the county’s post-arrival testing program on May 4. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photos

Pointing to a low positivity rate and other key findings, the County of Maui announced its post-arrival testing program would end this Friday after one month.

The county launched the post-arrival rapid COVID-19 antigen testing program at Kahului Airport on May 4 with the aim of protecting residents against variants and learning how many cases might be linked to travel. In previous months, the county had seen a surge in cases and at one point had the highest rate of variant cases per capita in the state.

Once terminated, the county program will carry a price tag of about $2.5 million to $2.7 million, according to Mayor Michael Victorino. He said during the county’s Tuesday afternoon news conference that federal CARES Act money is covering the tests, with county funds used for “smaller expenses,” such as tents.

Doctors of Waikiki was contracted to manage and administer the program at a cost of $25 per test, not to exceed 124,000 tests, according to Finance Director Scott Teruya. Multiple sources, including federal money from the CARES Act and county money from the general and emergency funds, would be used, Teruya said at the program’s onset.

From May 4 to Monday, 92,963 tests on trans-Pacific arrivals were done under the post-arrival program. About 3,868 trans-Pacific travelers were fully vaccinated and exempted, according to Dr. Alan Wu, Doctors of Waikiki medical director and co-founder.

Trans-Pacific travelers wait to get tested at the Kahului Airport during the launch of Maui County’s post-arrival COVID-19 testing program on May 4. Citing low positivity rates, the county said it will end the program on Friday.

Of those tested, Wu said 29 tests came back positive. Five cases — three visitors and two residents — were then confirmed to be positive through a follow-up PCR test.

“The positivity rate was very low at 0.054 percent — a lot less than the projected 1 percent of the travelers,” Wu said during the news conference. “And those were great numbers. It shows the vast majority of Americans are getting vaccinated and the rate of infection is a lot lower than what we really think. Without this program, we could never have come to this conclusion.”

Victorino said important data was gleaned from the program, and he lauded growing vaccination rates and lower case counts as reasons to halt the pilot program.

“What it achieved were numbers and facts we needed to understand,” Victorino said. “You as residents now have facts that the numbers that some had bandied about were not accurate. And here after a whole month of total testing, we have found that this number is extremely low.”

In March, Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang had called for more stringent travel measures. He was a researcher behind a Kahului Airport study released in March that said seven out of 1,000 travelers who bypass quarantine via Hawaii’s Safe Travels program probably have COVID-19. The study was not peer reviewed.

State officials had said that fewer than one out of 1,000 travelers using the pre-testing plan would likely bring the illness.

Shortly after the study was released, Maui County announced its plans to launch a post-arrival testing program. Hawaii County had a similar program that ended Tuesday.

Now, Maui County is seeing far fewer cases, thanks to increasing vaccination rates, officials said. Managing Director Sandy Baz said the county has a 0.8 percent positivity rate. Hospitalizations include one COVID-19 patient in ICU. No ventilators are in use.

“Our numbers have been in single digits for nine days,” Victorino said. “We can say the vaccination program is beginning to take hold.”

Maui County’s vaccination rate ties for the second highest in the state, with 69 percent of residents over the age of 18 having initiated the process and 56 percent completed, according to state Department of Health data. Kauai County is 72 percent initiated, 64 percent completed. Hawaii County is at 69 percent initiated, 55 percent completed. Honolulu County is 66 percent initiated, 56 percent completed.

Among the total population, 58 percent of Kauai County residents have initiated the process, followed by 55 percent each in Maui and Hawaii counties and 54 percent in Honolulu County.

Over the last few months, Hawaii has remained in the top 10 for highest vaccination rates in the nation.

Victorino praised county officials, along with Doctors of Waikiki, for operating a successful post-arrival testing program. Despite sometimes long airport wait times for residents and visitors, the plan was worth the effort, especially since cases were detected, he added.

“When you think about it, one case spreading could have put 100 to 200 people sick, hospitalized, etc.,” Victorino said. “I think it’s well worth the effort. I believe we the people of Maui County are the benefactors at the end.”

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


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