Coronavirus testing volume down in Hawaii as millions to fund it sit unspent

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — More vaccinated residents and the opening of interisland travel have led to a big drop in the number of people showing up for COVID-19 tests.

That lack of testing is leaving millions in federal funding unspent.

A series of relief packages poured billions in federal money into Hawaii, and Always Investigating has learned a lot of that cash meant for COVID testing programs has yet to be tapped.

As many as 5,000 to 7,000 COVID tests a day was common in Hawaii in recent months, but Monday, June 14, saw just 3,300 daily tests logged — the lowest weekday count since New Year’s Day.

“I believe we’re going to see a significant drop,” said Dr. Scott Miscovich of Premier Medical Group, whose clinics have provided tests statewide and nationwide throughout the pandemic. “There were some stats we were seeing that upward of 75 percent of all the tests that were being done on Oahu were being due to interisland traveling or mainland traveling, or required by employment.”

Demand for testing dropped on Monday as interisland travel re-opened without restrictions Tuesday and vaccinated residents returning from the mainland also no longer need a test. Why is testing still important with more than half the population fully vaccinated?

“We know at least 40% to 50% of individuals are asymptomatic positive, so how are those individuals going to know whether they have the disease or not?” Miscovich said. “That’s why you still need to have a large amount of surveillance testing available, while you’re pushing your vaccine rates up at the same time.”

The highly contagious Delta variant behind the outbreak in India popped up in Hawaii on Monday as a mild case of COVID in a fully-vaccinated local traveler.

As test volume declines, “it’s likely the positivity numbers that we have are not truly reflective of the actual count of disease in our state,” Miscovich said, “because we do not have the allocation of testing to the areas that we need to focus.”

It is not for lack of resources. The feds gave Hawaii more than $170 million just for testing, and the latest accounting shows most of that is unspent.

Always Investigating asked the Department of Health: What is the plan for widespread testing?

“Community testing is going to remain important, especially for any congregate setting, so places where people are living together such as nursing homes or for incarcerated persons,” said Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist. “There are going to be settings where testing remains very important to keep a finger on the pulse of whether COVID is circulating.”

“One place we’re testing will continue, no matter what, is going to be in medical offices, emergency rooms, hospitals,” Kemble said.

There is no shortage of supplies of the test kits right now, which often cost consumers $100 a pop.

“I do a periodic survey of the private sector laboratories, and they report their inventory of test kits on hand,” said Dr. Edward Desmond, state laboratories administrator. “There seems to be a robust supply of test kits on hand. I’m not concerned about that.”

A huge chunk of the unspent federal money for testing — more than $40 million — was slated for just for schools.

“Schools are where we have populations that are not eligible for vaccination,” Kemble said, “so we are working to expand some school testing pilots that have started over the summer, and looking to ramp those up in the fall.”

Other states and school districts already have widespread testing either underway or have issued bids for the coming school year. The state and DOE’s procurement websites show no active solicitations for COVID testing at schools or elsewhere.

Hawaii summer school students and staff who opted-in can access tests at eighteen Oahu public schools for the time being. It’s a pilot program called ICATT — standing for “Increasing Community Access to Testing.” Fourteen schools are doing weekly in-school testing and four schools are giving vouchers to get tested at CVS. It runs only through July and not all schools on the pilot program list have started yet. Some start later in the week of June 14.

On top of big program rollouts, just finding thousands more people willing to get tested to replace the travel-related testing exodus remains as important as ever.

“I think that the variants are a constant concern for those of us in public health,” Kemble said, “because it’s our job to worry about what might be around the corner.”

HIDOE schools that are participating in an Increasing Community Access to Testing (ICATT) CVS summer pilot program are listed below.

  • Dole Middle
  • Farrington High
  • Kalakaua Middle
  • Fern Elementary (Voucher only)
  • Central Middle
  • Kaimuki High
  • Kawananakoa Middle
  • Roosevelt High
  • Stevenson Middle
  • Washington Middle
  • August Ahrens Elementary
  • Pearl City High
  • Highlands Intermediate
  • Kanoelani Elementary (Voucher only)
  • Manana Elementary (Voucher only)
  • Waipahu Elementary
  • Waipahu High
  • Waipahu Intermediate (Voucher only)

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