The state’s new traveler testing program starts later this week, but the Ige Administration has still not produced a final plan.
There was a distinct theme at Monday’s regular meeting of the State House Committee on COVID-19: confusion.
The committee’s volunteer members represent some of Hawaii’s top talent in the realms of public health, economics, private industry, and social services. Many have been key advisors to the state officials responding to the pandemic.
But some appear to be in the dark about how the state plans to roll out a program for travelers to bypass the 14-day travel quarantine, set to launch on Thursday.
Committee member and hospital CEO Ray Vara has not seen final details from Gov. David Ige, but provided an outline for how the test verification process would generally work.
“In a perfect world, you would get your test results, upload it on to the Safe Travels Hawaii digital platform, you would get your QR code, and make your way through the airport,” explained Vara, who has been deeply involved in the public health aspect of Hawaii’s pandemic response.
That still leaves a lot up in the air, but there are a few known details.
The COVID test needs to be administered by one of the state’s trusted partners no more than 72 hours before flying to Hawaii. The 72-hour window is based on the time of departure for the flight that lands in Hawaii, meaning flyers will have to take connections and layovers into account.
Once they receive their COVID test results, travelers will use the Safe Travels system to upload documentation of the results.
The Google-based system will use artificial intelligence software to scan the test documents and verify a negative result. It will then generate a smart phone QR code that authorities will scan when the person arrives in Hawaii.
Passengers will also be required to complete a health survey 24 hours prior to flying. Children will be included under an adult’s Safe Travel form.
The 72-hour window provides a potential stumbling point for flyers, but multiple committee members expressed a belief that there would be some flexibility incorporated in the verification.
If the test results do not come back by the time a traveler lands, they will be directed to quarantine for the normal 14 days.
However, Vara expects that travelers will be able to upload the results whenever they’re ready and can skip the rest of the quarantine.
Mark Mugiishi, medical doctor and President of health insurer HMSA, predicted that occurrence will be fairly common because 72 hours may not be enough time for the processing of some test results.
“Someone may wait until the day before [they depart]. That definitely wouldn’t come back in time for them to leave and they’d have to upload it when they’re here,” he explained.
Two major questions remain unanswered: what will happen with inter-island travel and the status of neighbor island proposals for a second test after arrival.
Hawaii County has preliminary approval from the governor for a second test, which will be paid for with federal relief funds, but Mayor Harry Kim’s office has not released further details.
Cautioning against expecting a perfect launch of the travel testing program, one committee member described the October 15th start as a “soft opening” after which answers to some of the problems posed will become clearer.
All members urged residents to not let up on protective measures like mask wearing and avoiding large gatherings. They also cautioned that new COVID-19 cases will almost certainly tick up as Hawaii reopens.
Despite the bureaucratic and public health challenges, there was broad consensus among committee members that the state cannot afford to delay reopening any longer.
Citing recent state-by-state data on quarterly gross domestic product, University of Hawaii economist Carl Bonham noted that Hawaii now has the weakest economy in the United States, in terms of reduction in total output.
The latest information on the travel test program can be found at HawaiiCOVID19.com