Less Than 10 Minutes: A First Hand Look At The State's Pre-Travel Test Program

Nov 24, 2020

Hawaii reopened to visitors who want to avoid quarantine about a month ago. The state allows travelers to skip the 14-day quarantine if they take a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before departing to the islands. What is it like to go through the Safe Travels program?

I recently traveled to Mainland and back to Hawaii, experiencing the pre-travel testing first hand.

Last week, I spent a a couple of days deep in Smoky Mountains National Park hiking, camping and cooking.

I flew into Chicago, O’Hare airport, and drove down south with a friend from graduate school. 

When it was time to return home, I chose to take a saliva test offered through Vault Health. It is one of the trusted testing sites accepted by Hawaii as part of the pre-travel program. The state has also opened up travel from Japan with a similar program.

The Vault test materials were mailed to where I was staying and I took the test over a Zoom video call with a healthcare professional watching. She checked to make sure that I had the standard kit, and the correct sticker to indicate I was using the test for travel to Hawaii.

The kit cost about $150, and Vault has a process that allows you to request reimbursement from your insurance, although there is no guarantee that the request will be approved.

The test had two vials, one was empty to collect my saliva and the other contained a blue liquid to add to the saliva sample for the lab.

Because the test prohibits drinking or eating for at least 30 minutes before collecting the sample, I was having a difficult time generating the saliva. The healthcare professional advised that I think of something sour or massage my cheeks to help the process.

It was a little embarrassing, but after about 15 minutes, I filled the vial. I mailed the completed test back to the Vault lab based in New Jersey.

The completed Vault Health saliva test, ready to mail to its New Jersey lab.
Credit Ashley Mizuo / HPR

I had my negative result back in about 48 hours. I logged onto the Safe Travels Hawaii website and answered questions like where I traveled and my occupation and then uploaded my test results.

Starting today, travelers who want to avoid the 14-day quarantine need to have a negative test result before landing in Hawaii. Prior to the change, travelers without their results were required to quarantine until they could show they were negative.

At O’Hare International Airport, the terminals were relatively empty compared to pre-pandemic days, and my flight was about half full.

I spoke with fellow passengers about their Hawaii-travel experience as we waited to board.

Chicago O'Hare Airport
Credit Ashley Mizuo / HPR

One of them, Robin Pray, was still waiting for her test results.

“I had to get my test 72 hours before I flew, and I still don't have my results,” she said. “I went and got rapid results so that I could fly with some sort of ease because I won't know maybe 'til tomorrow, once I get to Hawaii.”

Once the plane landed, I generated a QR code from the Safe Travels website so it would be ready to scan when we deplaned.

I walked through the airport’s temperature scanner and then into an area where workers and the Hawaii national guard members processed travelers.

They scanned my QR code, checked my ID and I was good to go. It took less than 10 minutes.

The state has been randomly selecting travelers to take a voluntary second test 4 to 6 days after arriving. The aim is to gauge how many arrivals may be positive even after a negative pre-travel test.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green says only 1.6 in 1,000 are, and characterized the numbers of travelers testing positive as low.

But Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami says that's not the case on his island, where 13 positive cases were found after passengers arrived without their results. 

I decided to isolate until I could get a second test after waiting a few days. Then I got an email saying I’ve been randomly selected to participate in the voluntary post-arrival test.

I took the test on Monday and am awaiting the results, which I'll post on my Twitter account @ashleymizuo.