County to return 50K COVID tests to state, action not expected derail post-arrival testing effort

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Premier Medical COVID-19 testers prepare tests for people in line in Mountain View on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

Confusion surrounding a state donation of rapid COVID-19 test kits to the Big Island will not affect the county’s post-arrival testing program, officials say.

The state Department of Health in February revealed that it has approximately 720,000 rapid COVID-19 tests in storage that will expire by the end of March.

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Hawaii County and Premier Medical Group — the contractor administering post-arrival tests at the county’s airports — requested 39,000 kits from that stockpile earlier this year. After receiving those kits, the county and Premier requested an additional 50,000, but the DOH suddenly required the county and Premier to replace any more kits taken from the stockpile, at cost.

“If we are to get any of those kits, the state is going to ask us to pay to replace them,” said Dr. Kaohimanu Dang Akiona, Hawaii County medical director for Premier Medical Group.

Akiona said individual test kits cost between $30 and $40, placing the total cost of the 50,000 shipment between $1.5 and $2 million.

Akiona said Premier has shouldered the financial cost of the post-arrival testing since the program began, with financial assistance from a private donor. For now, she said, Premier President Scott Miscovich intends to continue supporting the program, because it is “the right thing to do.”

Cyrus Johnasen, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Roth, said that he understands that the county will simply return the 50,000 test kits to the state if and when they are delivered, while Premier sources test kits from elsewhere.

The county’s plans for the post-flight testing program remain unchanged, he said.

“We’re still going to keep doing it through the end of March,” Johnasen said, adding that the future of the program after this month is contingent on whether the county receives funding through the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package currently being discussed in the U.S. Congress.

“I think the bigger problem is why the state has 720,000 test kits that are about to expire, and they don’t want us to have just 50,000 of them,” Johnasen said.

DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo was quoted Tuesday by Honolulu Civil Beat as saying the tests are meant for community use only. However, Akiona said nobody is quite sure how such a large number of tests ended up nearly rotting in storage for so long.

Akiona explained that, most of the time, when Premier unpacks a new shipment of rapid COVID-19 tests, they usually have months before expiring. The fact that the stockpile of 720,000 will expire by the end of the month therefore suggests that the state has been sitting on them for months, she said, which “doesn’t inspire confidence.”

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Based on the individual costs of test kits, the stockpile which expires at the end of the month cost the state between $21.6 and $28.8 million.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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