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Testing May Not Be The Silver Bullet For Restarting Stalled Tourism Industry

Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines
Unused Hawaiian Airlines planes parked on the tarmac at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu.

As Hawaii continues to reopen the local economy, some leaders are calling for a plan to restart the state’s $18 billion tourism economy. One lawmaker wants COVID-19 testing to be at the center of such a plan.


The number of tourists coming to Hawaii is gradually starting to creep up. Inbound travel to the islands, which includes visitors, residents, and passengers on a layover, reached 1,200 people on the Friday before the Memorial Day Weekend.


That is a substantial increase from the daily average of 125 during the height of the lockdown, but still a small fraction of the 30,000 daily arrivals during the same period of 2019


The effects of the drop off in visitors has pushed the unemployment to levels unseen in modern times. The statewide unemployment rate topped 23%, representing the second largest increase in the country.


But in some communities, the situation is even worse.


At a meeting of the state House of Representatives Select Committee on COVID-19 on Tuesday, University of Hawaii economist Carl Bonham told members that unemployment is even higher in heavy tourism areas of the state.


“You see Kilauea on Kauai, Lahaina and Kihei on Maui, where 40 to 50% of the workforce are showing as having claimed unemployment benefits,” Bonham said.


That has led some community leaders to support a restart of tourism. Ewa Beach state Rep. Bob McDermott released a proposal calling for all travelers to undergo a COVID-19 test at home before they get on a plane to Hawaii. That would be supplemented with symptom checks during boarding and upon landing.


Although the state can’t legally force anyone to take a test, McDermott says after consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, and the White House, he thinks traveler testing can still be implemented.


“We think that because the airlines keep people off flights who are drunk, or don’t have proper ID, or pose a risk, that we think this is not an insurmountable obstacle,” McDermott noted.


The West Oahu Republican admits that the process would be complicated, requiring the buy-in from multiple federal agencies, the airlines, and ultimately individual travelers. However, there is also another, even more fundamental barrier: testing capacity.


Hawaii can currently process 3,000 to 5,000 COVID-19 tests per day, well below the number of people normally arriving every day, which ranges from 20,000 to nearly 40,000, depending on the month.


That limitation means that travelers would need to get tested at their point of origin. If Hawaii were given permission to require pre-flight testing, other states and cities would likely want to enact similar restrictions. Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president of health insurer HMSA, says if such a program were expanded to include all air travelers nationally, we would rapidly exceed our testing capacity.


“In four days, you would surpass all the tests that have ever been done in the United States. We simply don’t have the capacity to test everyone,” Mugiishi remarked. The surgeon has been overseeing the development of the state’s reopening framework, which was unveiled last week.


Tying up large quantities of tests would be especially problematic if there is a resurgence of virus as states relax their lockdowns. Mugiishi says realistically, testing will need to be layered with other protective measures to ensure travelers are not infected.


The McDermott Plan calls for the use of rapid tests to address the capacity issue. Specifically, it cites a method developed by Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories.


Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration warned that the Abbott test was falsely reporting infected individuals as being negative for the virus.

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