Hawaii public school coronavirus testing plan still in limbo after start of school year

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — School-based testing to screen for COVID-19 is a key component of the CDC’s guidance for virus prevention.

Yet Hawaii’s public schools do not have a widespread test program in place and only asked vendors to start bidding less than one week before teachers were due back on campus.

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The State has had access to tens of millions in federal funding to ramp up COVID-19 testing in schools for months, and yet officials are still working on getting a widespread testing plan up and running two weeks into the school year.

The CDC said school screening with COVID-19 tests is so critical to detecting and protecting children and staff that tens of billions of dollars have been put behind the effort nationwide. Hawaii got a significant chunk of that money for testing.

“I know it exceeds $70 million,” for Hawaii’s portion, said Dr. Scott Miscovich of Premier Medical Group, which provides both clinic-based testing as well as special mass-testing programs nationwide. “And I am told that recently some of the monies that came out of the next $138 million have to be, so it’s probably in the range of $200 million.”

But Always Investigating has found out the Department of Health (DOH) waited until July 22 to ask a handful of companies for quotes for what they called “Reopening Schools: COVID-19 School Testing Program.”

That was less than one week before teachers were due back on campus, less than two weeks before kids started and long after multitrack schools were in session. The late timing baffled teachers and doctors.

“This spring, people at the national level said that testing was going to be one of the mitigation strategies that we needed to have in place in order for schools to open safely and that hasn’t changed,” said Logan Okita, vice president of the Hawaii State Teachers Union (HSTA). “I think it’s highlighted even more with the delta variant.”

“Now it’s inadvertently like they kind of created a lot more of an emergency situation,” said Dr. Kaohimanu Dang-Akiona, a Big Island physician with Premier Medical Group.

“I’ve been working in approximately seven other states helping to develop a plan, and actually, we are testing,” Miscovich said. “Many of them started in March and April, because that’s when it was known the funding was released.”

The HSTA told KHON2 they knew nothing of the State’s school testing plan status until KHON2 forwarded the copy of the late-July biding invitation to them.

The DOH did not open the program to public procurement where anyone could bid, they instead told KHON2 they sent requests directly to seven of what they call “demonstrably qualified” vendors, five of which submitted quotes.

The DOH told KHON2 they are “working on contracts in an expeditious manner so they can be awarded as soon as possible.”

Always Investigating found out that some providers were not invited to submit a bid and one of the largest labs in the state was turned down. Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii (CLH) said in a statement: “CLH was not awarded the testing contract for the DOE. We have many schools, public and private, reaching out to us and we are assisting them as best we can.”

Once the contracts are approved, the DOH plan says the first schools will start in September and the whole system will be covered by the end of the year.

The Department of Health has triaged schools into six “tiers” based on a matrix of community vaccination and health inequities, even though kids under 12 aren’t even eligible for the vaccine yet.

Physicians were shocked to see places like Hilo and Honokaa and other rural neighbor island complexes in the last tier while a COVID-19 crisis rages in their communities.

“It’s very scary that they think we can wait until that long,” Akiona said. “It shows that maybe they don’t understand kind of the situation right now, that we’re already at a tipping point.”

Testing advocates said some kind of alternative needs to be figured out immediately.

“Why can’t a school work with a private donor or an organization or a PTO or even just their neighborhood businesses to offer testing to their school community?” Okita said.

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The Department of Education told KHON2s it is deferring to DOH to contract and to run the program and did not respond to requests for further details or comment.

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