HONOLULU (KHON2) — Friday, Oct. 15, marked the one-year anniversary of the Safe Travels Hawaii program, requiring travelers to show proof of a negative COVID test, and later, vaccination status, to avoid quarantine. It has faced challenges and criticism, but officials consider the program a success.
According to state officials, Safe Travels Hawaii has helped keep Hawaii’s COVID cases down, and the program is likely to remain in effect through the holidays.
Many thought it would have ended by now since Hawaii is 70% vaccinated, but Gov. David Ige withdrew his plans to cut it based on vaccination rates after delta cases surged nationwide.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, the Hawaii COVID-19 Healthcare Liaison, said the program will likely be around for the foreseeable future.
“I think, at least, through the end of this holiday season,” Green said. “The reason for that is that there’s a higher COVID rate on the mainland, and we’re still adjusting to the prospect of bringing international travel here. So, we wouldn’t want to kind of make too many large changes all at once.”
According to Green, the program went through a number of iterations from 2020 through 2021. Even its launch was delayed due to the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus.
“Safe Travels was supposed to begin in early July, right after July 4. But there was then a surge on the mainland, and there was no availability of tests; so we couldn’t do it yet,” he explained. “Then, right when the surge dropped off in the mainland, we had a surge from July 4, 2020. And so it was just too risky to open up.”
After the program’s launch on Oct. 15, 2020, it continued to evolve. For the first nine months, only proof of a negative COVID test — within 72 hours of departure — from approved laboratories was accepted. Then on July 8, 2021, the program allowed COVID vaccination exemptions.
Safe Travels Hawaii Special Project Administrator Sheri Kajiwara said that changed everything.
“That has some challenges in itself, but I think it really made it a lot easier for travelers, and I’d say the majority of people entering our state are now through vaccination exceptions,” Kajiwara explained.
Long lines created backlogs for hours in some instances — an issue that plagued the program for months.
“The lines were difficult in the beginning because not only did our people have to understand and be trained on the process — and there’s so many variables with every different state — but we had to spend a lot of time teaching the passengers what’s required,” Kajiwara added.
Then, airlines started offering the pre-departure check program where they would prescreen passenger’s Safe Travels information.
“That has really been a lifesaver for us,” she explained. “I would say maybe 75 to 80% of our passengers are screening at the point of the pre-departure.”
All six of the main airlines with flights to Hawaii now offer the pre-departure check program.
Another issue the program faces include fraudulent documents — everything from fake test results to fake vaccination cards. A woman even tried to use a fake pre-departure check wristband.
“Someone did come through with a homemade wrist band and tried to flash it at the guards, but they were stopped and put in quarantine because they didn’t have the required exemption,” Kajiwara explained. “Our team has gotten pretty good at being able to identify some key elements that tell us this is false. And we will do our due diligence by contacting the provider and verifying that they are in the system and that the results are true.”
Violators can face a fine of up to $5,000 and possible jail time if they are caught falsifying documents. Green admitted Safe Travels is not perfect but said it achieved its goal.
“Safe Travels has kept COVID at bay,” Green said.
According to Kajiwara, screeners would identify at least two to three positive COVID cases per week with people trying to come into the state.
“We had a lot of asymptomatic travelers,” she explained. “Taking a test helped them know that they were positive, and then they would have to quarantine.”
Green said he considers the program a success because Hawaii had the second-lowest rate of COVID for the whole pandemic and the second-lowest mortality rate. This allowed Hawaii travel to continue safely.
“In the past year, we have screened close to eight million travelers into the state of Hawaii,” Kajiwara said.
Updates to the program may be coming soon following new international travel requirements announced by the federal government Friday.
“The state leadership is now looking at all of those recommendations, and I understand that the governor will be making some decisions shortly on how we will amend Safe Travels to align with the federal mandates,” Kajiwara said.
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“The holidays are coming, and Thanksgiving is a time where we are worried that the virus count will increase again. So, we want to keep that from happening and keep ourselves and each other safe,” She added.