Lieutenant governor pushes back against criticism over testing, touts low infection rates

Lt. Gov. Josh Green contends that the state’s COVID-19 surveillance testing program is doing well, despite criticism this week from Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

“I’m not going to get in the mud with Mr. Caldwell,” Green said Friday during a live stream with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “I just really have decided to rise above that. But let me make a few things clear. Hawaii is the only state doing Safe Travels in a comprehensive way, although others are starting to emulate us with additional testing.”

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Since the Safe Travels Hawaii program launched on Oct. 15, just over 273,000 passengers have been screened, the state reported Thursday. Of those, 243,140 were permitted to skip the 14-day quarantine by testing negative for COVID-19 or because they had an exemption from the state.

To supplement its pre-travel testing program, the state also launched a strategic surveillance testing program that would test up to 10% of all travelers, randomly and voluntarily, four days after arriving in Hawaii.

Green, a Big Island physician, said that there have been only 27 positive cases out of 17,720 post-travel tests administered.

“(Caldwell is) in the end-game of his term,” Green said. “I’ve already begun to brief the mayors-elect about the programs. He needs to focus on these next two months and what’s safe, but we have the safest, best numbers in the country, and there’s nothing to prevent him — and there never was — from doing extra testing if he’d like.

“But when I tell you there’s 27 positive (results) out of 17,000 tests … that’s good news,” he continued. “You can’t do better than that. There’s no way.”

According to Green, Hawaii has the lowest rate of coronavirus infections in the U.S.

“I don’t promise things to mayors,” Green said. “What I do is I build a system for the state of Hawaii to make sure that we’re safe. That’s why I’m very proud to report that we have the lowest rates (of COVID-19) in the country.”

Green also discussed the recently announced changes to Hawaii’s pre-travel program requirements and said those revisions came after about 40 travelers received positive test results after landing in Hawaii, a change that was lobbied for by Hawaii’s mayors.

“So now they’re sitting in some airport in Hawaii with a positive result after being on a plane with other individuals, and they have to now isolate for 10 days,” he said. “So that was creating quite a lot of problems and concerns. With the COVID rates surging on the mainland, it stands to reason that some changes would be made.”

Starting Tuesday, trans-Pacific arrivals in Hawaii must have a negative COVID-19 test result from a trusted testing partner prior to departure to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

This tightening of the state’s pre-arrival testing program applies to arriving passengers from the mainland U.S. and international travelers. If test results aren’t available before boarding the final leg of a Hawaii-bound trip, the traveler must quarantine for 14 days or the length of the stay, whichever is shorter.

Previously, those who were tested prior to departure but hadn’t received results were subject to quarantine, but were released from quarantine upon the confirmation of a negative result.

In a phone interview Friday, Mayor Harry Kim said the changes are a good move.

“(The mayors) pushed for it, because if you’re positive, why should you be on that plane, coming all the way to Hawaii?” he said.

Kim said updates will “prevent a lot of personal misery” for travelers who arrive and then discover they have tested positive for the virus.

According to Kim, the county has had to develop a program to chauffeur COVID-positive individuals from the airports and expand its quarantine sites because some of the places these travelers made reservations were not suitable.

With higher COVID cases counts on the mainland and additional testing underway, Green said people are worried about being able to get tested and receive their results within three days.

“Believe me, I know that it’s onerous. I know that it’s tough,” Green said. “But what we are trying to achieve is getting through these next two months until we get to the vaccination with very low COVID rates.”

Green said many of the state’s trusted partners offer approved tests with results available in about 15 minutes, and the recent addition of new testing partners means there are more ways for people to get tested.

“Again, it’s not easy, but it’s not easy doing anything, I can attest, when you have an international COVID crisis,” he said. “The good news is, if we get through these eight weeks, get past Thanksgiving, without too much of a surge, get through Christmas, then the vaccinations will have begin for our most vulnerable communities, especially first responders and kupuna.”

Green also said Friday that recent reports about vaccine development are very good news.

“We are prepared to accept vaccinations from the federal government as soon as they’re fully approved, and we want them,” he said.

Green expects about 44,000 people — first responders, health care providers and vulnerable kupuna — to be vaccinated in the first round of available vaccines.

The hope is to begin vaccinating people in December, although a timeline is contingent on federal approval, Green said, with mass vaccinations happening in the spring for high-risk individuals.

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Green said he is cautiously optimistic that “when we come to the end of the spring, not only have we seen our case counts go lower, and that our travels program has worked and so on, but also a large hunk of our society has gotten immunity. Then we won’t be worried quite so much about travel or small outbreaks. We’ll still have to be sensible about things. We’ll still have to mask, and we’ll still have to be mindful of these rules. … Everything starts getting easier as we get immunity. That’s the hope.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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