State: Dip in new COVID-19 cases likely due to ‘significant’ delay in testing results

Delays with mainland labs are resulting in lower daily case counts for Hawaii, officials say.

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state saw a drop in new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, but Health Department officials say the dip was likely due to testing delays and not a decline in virus activity.

There were 87 new COVID-19 infections confirmed Saturday, all on Oahu.

That’s down from triple-digit gains from Wednesday through Friday.

In a news release Saturday, the state Health Department said while the one-day decline in cases is “encouraging,” it also represents a “significant lag in the testing results.” Tests sent to mainland labs, overwhelmed by the surge on the mainland, are taking five to seven days to process.

“This delay may make case numbers appear lower than actual disease activity,” the state said.

The testing delays are prompting calls for the state to bolster its capacity for processing test samples in the islands. They say getting results more quickly could help the state get the upper hand on the virus.

Dr. Scott Miscovich, who has organized large COVID-19 testing events, said tests for more at-risk and symptomatic patients are being processed locally. “They have to respond to emergencies first. They have to respond to the hospitals and intensive cares where we clearly know those are going up,” he said.

But asymptomatic and low-risk patients are more likely to have their tests sent to the mainland.

Until there’s a positive result, the state can’t conduct contact tracing — the work of reaching out to close contacts of someone who is infected to tell them to isolate and get tested, too.

“How do you stop a disease unless you get those people in 12 hours — 24 at the most? Isolate them, take care of them,” Miscovich said.

Some efforts to increase Hawaii’s local testing capabilities have stalled.

The pooling method approved by the FDA last month isn’t yet being done in Hawaii. Pooling allows up to four samples to be run at once.

Miscovich says labs in Hawaii have been delayed over accuracy concerns.

State leaders say they hope to start pooling samples later this month. As urgent as the need is, they say it’s not something that can be set up overnight.

“People need to know, don’t rush this process. Do not rush it. This is something that you (don’t want to) shortcut because accuracy is more important than the time and speed,” Miscovich said.

To help ease the delay in processing tests, Maui Memorial Medical Center is awaiting the arrival of a new machine that can handle up to 2,000 more samples a day, according to Miscovich.

“Here’s my concern: We’re not testing enough,” Miscovich said.

“We’re still kind of limiting the testing to maybe those who’ve had close contact or coughing, and we need to broaden the testing out to find the asymptomatic positives.”

As testing remains selective, the message remains the same from health officials: Continue to practice social distancing and wear a mask. Miscovich said unless people take precautions the state could start seeing more than 200 new cases per day in less than two weeks.

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