Oahu freeway virus test could result in federal funds loss

HONOLULU — Hawaii officials held a large coronavirus testing event on the state’s H-3 freeway and planned to do so again, risking a loss of federal transportation funds.

More than 1,700 Oahu residents were tested along the freeway Tuesday in so-called surge testing for the coronavirus by city, state and federal agencies.

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State officials expected to conduct a second round of tests on the H-3 Thursday.

State officials acknowledged facing a potential loss of funds after the Federal Highways Administration denied Hawaii’s request to use the freeway for the event.

The administration’s stated reasons for the denial were the impact on traffic, commerce, safety and the Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe.

Ed Sniffen, Hawaii Highways Division deputy director, said the state received a letter from the agency hours before the testing began, but after the freeway was closed at 5 a.m. and personnel were moving into place.

“We decided it’s way too important for the public for us not to move forward with this testing today,” Sniffen said at a news conference outside the H-3 tunnel.

The state receives $180 million in annual project funding from the highways agency, which could withhold some of the funds, Sniffen said.

Democratic Gov. David Ige said the freeway was “a safe testing site.”

“It has all of the attributes that we would want in terms of the community’s convenience,” Ige said.

Wait times for the tests ranged from 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the side of the road being used.

A highway administration spokesman in Washington, D.C., declined to comment but issued a statement saying the agency plans to work with the state “to identify alternative options.”

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For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

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