Pre-travel COVID-19 testing program for trans-Pacific visitors to begin Oct. 15

Gov. David Ige said he considered a variety of factors before deciding to launch on Oct. 15 a pre-travel COVID-19 testing program for trans-Pacific visitors.

Ige on Wednesday announced the start of the often-delayed program, which will allow airline passengers to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine if they test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours of arriving in Hawaii.

“We’re looking at the overall virus activity in the islands and the health care of the hospitals … and other measures in our health care system,” Ige said during an afternoon media conference.

“We are working with the (travel and health care industries) to ensure that we can have the standards in place so we can protect the employees and ensure that the visitors have the experience that they expect when they travel to Hawaii,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a physician, said the state has already partnered with CVS, the parent company of Longs Drugs; Walgreen’s; and Kaiser Permanente for testing and is working on partnerships with other pharmacy companies and health care providers to provide testing to travelers. Green said the tests being provided are nucleic acid amplification tests, or NAAT.

“That group of testing tends to be both sensitive and specific. In other words, it won’t get messed up,” Green said from his Oahu residence, where he is isolated and recovering after testing positive for COVID-19. “And there are some tests that are significantly less, like in the $75 price range. We expect our partners — CVS, Kaiser and Walgreen’s — to do all that they can to lower the price point for the many travelers that will come to Hawaii.

“And, contrary to what a lot of people think, I think that in a few months we’re going to start getting quite a lot of travelers.”

Hawaiian Airlines, which has canceled numerous daily flights and has seen significant ridership and revenue declines, hailed Ige’s announcement.

“We are ready to safely welcome Hawaii travelers under the state’s pre-travel testing program,” the airline said in a statement. “It is another important safety layer that strengthens the comprehensive protocols Hawaiian Airlines and our visitor industry partners have adopted in recent months to protect our employees, guests and community.

“With these measures in place it is time to begin to reopen our economy.”

Upheaval from the pandemic has pushed nearly one-quarter of Hawaii’s workforce, which is heavily dependent upon tourism, into joblessness. In April, Hawaii had the third-worst unemployment rate in the nation after Nevada and Michigan.

“I worry about the long-term impacts of economic distress and the impact this has on our people, when they can’t afford their homes as easily or groceries or health care,” Green said.

Earlier this year, Ige planned to start a pre-travel testing program on Aug. 1 only to have to postpone it as COVID-19 cases spiked on the U.S. mainland and in Hawaii. A shortage of testing supplies also forced delays.

Another start date of Sept. 1 also was canceled, as was a tentative date of Oct. 1.

Hawaii leaders are hopeful that pre-travel testing will encourage people to return to Hawaii in a way that keeps residents safe. Tourism traffic to the state has plunged more than 90% since the pandemic began, forcing hundreds of hotels to close and putting many people out of work.

Ige’s announcement doesn’t affect the 14-day interisland quarantine for anyone arriving on any island other than Oahu, which continues through Sept. 30, unless terminated or extended by a separate emergency proclamation.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Health reported 102 new COVID-19 cases in Hawaii, 98 of which were on Oahu.

The remaining four cases are on Hawaii Island, where a recent surge of cases appears to be receding, although an outbreak at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo has resulted in at least 15 deaths at the facility.

The DOH also reported Wednesday that Hawaii had an average of 118 cases per day for the past seven days. That’s down from a seven-day daily average of 255 on Aug. 28.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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