Hawaii schools ramp up COVID testing, but most don’t have screening

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The number of schools with COVID testing available has more than doubled in the past week. It is a good sign for worried parents, students and faculty. But as Always Investigating found out, it is not reaching some of the biggest problem areas.

The CDC said testing in schools is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But the Department of Health (DOH) has been slow to set it up in Hawaii schools.

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A month ago Always Investigating revealed the Department of Health waited until Thursday, July 22, to ask a handful of companies for quotes for a COVID testing program. That was less than one week before teachers were due back on campus and less than two weeks before kids started. We wanted to know what progress has been made since then:

“It’s moving pretty quickly. You think we went from 10 schools registered three weeks ago to, then, 50 last week, and now we’re well over 100,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble. “So it’s moving pretty quickly.”

Not quickly enough, though, in some of the communities hardest hit by the latest wave, including on the Big Island.

“It doesn’t seem like we have that plan yet,” said Dr. Kaohimanu Dang-Akiona, a physician with Premier Medical Group in Hilo. “So in lieu of that, we have to have something to quickly identify and quickly control it. And then, having a support process for the parents so that it’s not so chaotic. It’s still very chaotic right now.”

Chaotic especially as more and more students and families need access to testing due to exposure at school and want the universal screening at the door that the school programs are supposed to be teeing up.

“We’re still seeing people bringing in their kids for this specific reason that they’ve been contacted as a potential positive in the child’s classroom,” Dr. Dang-Akiona said. “We’re having to talk them through that and then trying as much as I can to refer them back to the DOH. But really, a lot of people are just feeling like the DOH is not even there, like no one’s answering phone calls.”

The state said options at school for tests are growing on two paths — one federally backed and the other scaling up in response to the late-summer bids the DOH gathered just before school started.

“There are actually now well over 100 schools that have registered for a federal program called Operation Expanded Testing (OET) to offer some degree of screening testing within their campuses, and that testing has already begun in the last couple of weeks,” Dr. Kemble said. “We also have testing beginning on the neighbor islands, through partners that we’ve established through those (summer solicitation) contracts.”

The state’s initial target was to have screening tests at all schools by the end of the year, and lawmakers asked education officials at a Wednesday hearing if that will happen.

“Can you provide a firm deadline and when this program will be available in all schools?” asked Rep. Jeanne Kapela, (D) Naalehu-Captain Cook.

“My understanding is once the conversation between the people who are setting up OET and the school is clear about how many tests they need and what the process is going to be, then it’s a matter of ordering it and getting it into their hands,” explained HIDOE deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami. “My understanding is it takes several days for it to get to the school, but once the school has the tests, they can begin the testing process.”

Find more COVID-19 news: cases, vaccinations on our Coronavirus News page

We asked both the DOH and the DOE for more on the schools where the tests are happening and the results so far. We’ll let you know when we get the answers.

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