Despite spending more than $150 million on traveler screening and contact tracing, state officials say contact tracers have only received meaningful responses from about 50% of travelers.
At a Monday House Select Committee on COVID-19 and its economic impacts, Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of Hawaii Medical Service Association said that, in follow-up calls to travelers to ensure their quarantine compliance, contact tracers have only been able to “meaningfully engage” about 50% of the time.
Mugiishi said that travelers are reticent to respond because of a number of factors, including mistaking the contact tracers’ calls for a scam call, or an unwillingness to give out personal information.
“First, they have to receive the information, then they have to understand it, then they have to care about it and then that has to turn into compliance,” Mugiishi said.
Whatever the reason, however, the contact tracing program is less effective than it could be, Mugiishi said, although he added that the information received from the 50% who have engaged with the program means the program has not been wasted. However, he said the state is working to educate visitors about travel requirements before Oct. 15, when travelers who present a negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hours before arriving in Hawaii will be allowed to skip the currently mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Ray Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health, said airlines and other travel partners will roll out public information about the Oct. 15 date on the mainland sometime this week, and testing partners, including CVS, Walgreens, Kaiser, Hawaiian Airlines, United Airlines, will begin their testing programs around Oct. 10.
Lieutenant Gov. Josh Green said during a Monday livestream with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the state is working with testing partners to allow tests for younger children, although he also announced Monday that the state will not require testing for children under 5 — those children are “connected at the hip of their parents,” and would most likely test negative if their parents also test negative.
Vara said the pre-travel testing program will likely catch about 80% of asymptomatic COVID-positive travelers. However, Green, himself recently recovered from COVID-19, elaborated that only about one in 300 travelers are asymptomatic, so the pre-travel tests will catch “a ton” of asymptomatic cases.
“Not every one of them, but a lot of them,” Green said. “We will bring that number that’s already low, down even way lower, probably to under 1 in 1,000 people.”
Based on Green’s math, if 7,000 people arrive in Hawaii every day, seven of them may arrive as undetected asymptomatic carriers.
For now, Vara and Green said the state will not implement a second, post-arrival test, with Green citing the prohibitive cost of doing so.
“If we were to add a second test, which would be great if we just had perfect unlimited testing, we would be testing to decrease that number from about seven a day maybe down to two or three,” Green said. “We could do that, but testing 7,000 people a day at $120 a pop would cost us like $800,000 a day, plus the testing, plus isolating people, to save ourselves three or four cases.”
“So we have to ask ourselves, what’s the best approach and the best approach is to do good contact tracing, good testing when people are symptomatic and be ready in case anyone gets sick,” Green went on. “That’s how we’re approaching it. If hotels want to add extra tests or the counties, that’s great. Never will I shy away from extra safety, but we still have to use our resources wisely and we want to use our 4,000 tests for people who are sick, for people who a need to be contact traced.”
Even with the arrival of more travelers in October, the state’s economy will likely not recover from the pandemic in the near future. Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said that, thanks to the delays in reopening the state to travelers, the state’s recovery has been pushed back at least six months.
“We’re not expecting a robust bounceback until the second half of 2021, assuming a vaccine is widely available,” Bonham said.
So far, Bonham said 14% of jobs in the state have been lost this year. Meanwhile, more than 40,000 Hawaii residents have moved away from the state since the pandemic started.