Hawaii Says It Can't Be Hub For Treating New Virus

Feb 3, 2020

Updated 2/4/2020 10:31 a.m.

Hawaii has only a modest healthcare system and can’t be a hub for accommodating people potentially exposed to the rapidly spreading new virus that emerged in China in recent months, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Monday.

He said the state only has the capacity to handle its own citizens and basic screening unless it gets significant support from the military.

“We are happy to do our part but only modestly as needed for very sick people or for our citizens,” Green said.

Green, who also is an emergency room physician, spoke after the U.S. government announced Honolulu would be one of 11 airports designated to receive U.S. citizens who have traveled in China within the last 14 days.

Hawaii was also included on a list of states for the repatriation of American citizens traveling in China.

On Monday, Hawaii State Health Department Director Bruce Anderson told state lawmakers at a briefing that Hawaii has since been removed from the list.

However, Daniel K. Inouye International Airport remains on the list of airports that will accept American citizens, legal permanent residents and immediate family members traveling from China. A Hawaii Department of Transportation spokesperson explained that the federal governement has clarified that entire flights will not be directed to any of the selected airports, only certain passangers. 

Green said he was not currently expecting many potential patients, particularly after China Eastern Airlines, which operated the only direct flight from China to Hawaii, suspended service to the islands.

He said he’d like the federal government to provide space on a military base with at least 120 beds if a large-scale quarantine is required. He said he doesn’t anticipate that many would be needed, but added the state needs to be prepared if the outbreak extends for months longer and spreads further.

“At all costs, we have to be safe,” Green said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security didn’t notify Hawaii in advance that Honolulu was on the original list of airports, Green said, although state officials were able to talk to department officials over the phone an hour or two after the announcement.

Green criticized the federal government for failing to make arrangements for a quarantine location on a military base in Hawaii before the airport announcement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began screening people for coronavirus at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport last week. Travelers are being asked if they have been to China, and their passports are being checked. Those who answer "yes" and do not show any symptoms will still be quarantined at home for 14 days.

The 14 days is the maximum time it would take before someone begins showing symptoms of the virus, although the average is five days. 

Wednesday marks two weeks since Wuhan, epicenter of the outbreak went into lockdown, shutting down public transportation and placing the city on quarantine.

Anderson said although direct travel to China has been halted, the risk of infection in Hawaii is not over.

"These international flights are going to continue to come to Hawaii from places where they have the disease," he said. "We’re in this for the long haul. It’s not something that we expect will go away as a problem. I am confident that if we do have a case, it will be identified very early. We are going to identify the contacts, and treat them quickly and appropriately when that happens."

If needed, the state plans to quarantine people suspected of having the virus at a secure facility at the Pearl Harbor military base. 

Coronavirus symptoms are similar to that of the common flu. State Epidemiologist Sarah Park advises people to not rely on information about the disease from social media, but to check with their doctors and official government websites.