City mass-testing program on hold over state objections

Coronavirus

Honolulu’s mayor is pausing a 10,000-test initiative that would have started next week, after the state Department of Health said it would disregard any COVID-19 results.

Health experts and Hawaii’s government officials agree more widespread testing will be key to lifting stay-at-home orders. But who does the testing and how has become a turf battle between the city and state.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced this week the city would spend $2 million on 10,000 COVID-19 tests provided by vendor Everlywell.

That brought a stern rebuke in writing, with the state health director Bruce Anderson telling the mayor there are questions about the tests’ accuracy and that they can’t be used to diagnose a positive nor to clear a negative.

“We strongly disagree with the Department of Health on this,” Caldwell said Thursday. “But we’ll be holding off for a short period, rolling forward with the Everlywell contract, so that we can discuss this with the Department of Health before proceeding.”

The test vendor Everlywell told the state in a letter Thursday that the state was inaccurate about its warnings to the city, and is disappointed their company was not contacted by the state to address concerns.

(Subsequent to the airing of this story, Anderson later submitted a statement saying: “The Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) recently received a letter from Everlywell assuring the Department that the tests offered to the City & County of Honolulu will be conducted at a CLIA certified laboratory in California and are authorized for use under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization.  While this testing process appears valid, the department continues to have concerns about the delay in receiving test results from an out-of-state laboratory when local resources are available for more timely and cost-efficient reporting of results. The Department is also concerned about the reliability and efficiency of laboratory reporting from Everlywell to state authorities. Local laboratories now have the capacity and track record to reliably and consistently provide test results and may provide a better option. The Department will continue to work with the City on determining the best solutions for expanding testing in Honolulu as we work together to reopen the state while protecting the community.”)

Guy Kaulukukui, director of the city’s Department of Enterprise Services, says the state was made aware repeatedly and as early as April 14 what was coming.

“That’s four opportunities where we shared our intention with the Department of Health,” Kaulukukui explained. “They didn’t say stop. They did make it clear that although they applauded the effort to expand testing in our community and appreciated the city was willing to do it, that it really was a Department of Health function, that they felt like the testing that was going on at the time was adequate.”

The city saw it differently and moved ahead with announcing the plan to administer the Everlywell tests at Oahu community health centers, with swabs shipped to the mainland through UPS for processing at the vendor’s partner labs.

KHON2 asked, could that have been done by using a test both sides agreed on?

“I think it’s possible,” Kaulukukui said. “As we were putting the program together, which evolved over 2 and a half to 3 weeks, I did reach out to both DLS and CLH locally to gauge their ability to provide the scale we were looking at and the turnaround time that we needed.”

The city tells us the pricing also came out same or better than if they’d bought it from local labs.

Clinical Labs of Hawaii told KHON2 they weren’t asked to formally bid. They say they can run 400 swab tests a day now, and 2,000 tests a day come May.

Clinical Labs is also completing validations of rapid antibody testing this week. They’ll run 1,000 of those daily at first, then a max 15,000 capacity per day in May.

KHON2 will continue to follow up on the status of the city testing program, and also any other testing initiatives that come up statewide.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories