Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Wednesday that he does not see any reason the state could not reopen to trans-Pacific travelers on Oct. 1.
“If we can get the numbers down to 70 (daily positive cases) consistently, that is something we can maintain in our hospitals, there is no reason we couldn’t open up to tourism and open our schools,” said Green, a Big Island physician, during a Honolulu Star-Advertiser Facebook livestream.
The state Department of Health announced 100 new positive cases Wednesday, with 10 new cases on Hawaii Island and 90 on Oahu. Also reported Wednesday were three new coronavirus-related deaths on Oahu, bringing the death toll statewide to 91.
Overall case numbers as of Wednesday were City and County of Honolulu, 9,146; Maui County, 360; Hawaii County, 533; and Kauai County, 58.
According to Green, an average of 0.58% of people have tested positive during surge testing on Oahu, which is about 5-6 people per 1,000 tests.
“The numbers are much better, but it is certainly a challenge,” Green said. “We reported 66 positive cases yesterday, although there was limited testing over the holiday weekend, and 100 cases today.”
Green reported that active cases are tipping downward from 6,874 to 3,912, and spoke about hospital numbers as well.
“We are now at 240 individuals in the hospital, down from a peak of about 315 or so. … We’ve been steadily declining and that’s usually a reflection of decrease in the overall disease burden in the state,” Green said.
These are important things because Hawaii needs to reopen retail, restaurants and tourism, the lieutenant governor said, and “we’re on the precipice of that.”
Green said a soft opening for tourism makes sense with two proposals for testing.
Green is proposing a PCR test, which detects the virus’ genetic material, be required within three days of travel. If the tester receives a negative result, then they can travel from the mainland to Hawaii.
His second proposal is to require an antigen test, which detects specific proteins on the surface of the virus, that can be taken on the mainland within three days of travel and again in Hawaii. The antigen tests are about $22 and provide a rapid result within 15 minutes.
“This is what I believe will be the right plan,” Green said. “ … Given the case rates and the positivity rates, it’s pretty good.”
The state should be able to reopen tourism in three weeks, followed by schools two weeks later.
“As long as we’re giving enough access to tracing and testing for everybody, we can keep an eye on it,” Green said.
“… We are watching every case by the minute … and it’s something that becomes more sophisticated every day,” he added. “Sooner or later we’re going to have to bite the bullet.”
Green is also advocating for public schools to open for face-to-face learning on Oct. 13.
Green said he will be proposing a plan that will allow eight locations for testing in each county. Children in school, teachers, first responders and other front-line workers can get same day tests.
“This testing could provide a ton of extra support and it’s a doable thing,” Green said. “It’s better than waiting too long, because I’m not sure a vaccination will come in the fall or winter. If parents or teachers think it’s too much risk, then I understand that.”
When asked if Hawaii’s infrastructure is ready for testing for tourism and schools, Green thinks the state will be ready.
“We already have relationships in place with CVS, Kaiser and Walgreens is coming on, and when we finalize the decision to allow for rapid antigen testing anywhere as long as we do a follow-up, it opens up testing everywhere,” Green said. “It opens the scope and makes everything easier, which is what we need to do. We need to make plans accessible and not burdensome.”
“I don’t think travelers coming in is going to be a big worry,” Green added. “I think it’s going to be continued community spread if we don’t do a good job testing people.”
Last week, Gov. David Ige announced that Bruce Anderson, director of the state Department of Health, will be retiring Sept. 15. Dr. Libby Char will serve as interim director effective Sept. 16.
The DOH revealed last Thursday that State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park will be taking a paid leave of absence as well. Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu, who is working with Dr. Emily Roberson, has been put in charge of all disease investigation and immunization activities.
With the changing leadership at the DOH, Green is enthusiastic about the potential changes in contact tracing.
“Going forward, Dr. Libby Char, who is a physician, is fantastic,” Green said. “She’s very subdued, extremely smart and she will provide good health leadership, so that’s a big plus.”
Park’s departure clears the way for Roberson and her team. They have about 200 contact tracers and plan to bring on 125 new tracers in the next two to three weeks.
The ultimate goal, according to Green, is for the case numbers to decrease and the amount of contact tracers to increase.
“That is how you knock this virus out,” he said.
Green said the stay-at-home order on Oahu, surge testing in all counties and the response to the spike in the virus has helped bring down active cases.
“I think people took to heart not gathering last weekend,” Green said about the extended Labor Day weekend. “It was infinitely better than Fourth of July weekend and I think we’ll see cases ratchet down.”
“All the indicators have been good the past few days and I hope it means we can get this state back going again,” he added. “I hope it means we can open up the economy on Oct. 1st and schools on Oct. 13th and start being normal, not totally normal, but start feeling normal.”