New research raises questions about efficacy of Hawaii’s pre-traveler testing rules

Scientists believe Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program is likely catching only a fraction of infected travelers.
Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 5:31 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 23, 2021 at 4:41 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - New research shows Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program is likely only catching a fraction of infected travelers.

Lee Altenberg, a University of Hawaii adjunct mathematics professor, says a recent study and other developments show the virus can leak through testing ― especially now with the Delta variant.

He said simulations show Hawaii’s pre-testing protocol may be detecting only 20% of infected travelers.

“That’s the simplified way of putting it,” he said. “The precise way is the total exposure of the destination, mainly the residents of Hawaii from COVID-infected travelers, is reduced by the pre-travel test by about 20%.”

The research comes in part from a study published in March in the medical journal “The Lancet Infectious Diseases,” which did not include data from the Delta variant and vaccinations.

This month, Altenberg wrote a letter to the journal that offers additional context.

The study’s authors from Stanford University and UC San Francisco say they’re worried about the gaps in Hawaii’s travel testing and about breakthrough infections for those who are vaccinated.

“I continue to believe that routine asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 is one of the biggest missed opportunities to combat the pandemic,” Nathan Lo, faculty fellow in Infectious Diseases at the University of California San Francisco, wrote in an email to Hawaii News Now.

Altenberg, meanwhile, believes everyone flying in should be tested ― regardless of vaccination status.

“When they also tested a strategy where you add a quarantine of five days and a second test to get out of it, they found that strategy reduced the exposure by 84%,” he said.

He says tourists are not the main source of infection, but do contribute to it. How much — nobody knows.

Hawaii studies also show tourists have little incentive to test while on vacation.

“Tourists have a disincentive for getting tested. If they test positive, it ruins their whole vacation,” said Altenberg.

Dr. Darragh O’Carroll, a Hawaii emergency physician, believes that data shows pre-travel testing needs to be beefed up to keep the economy going.

“If Hawaii is going to continue and needs to be reliant on travel, we need to really need to take a hard look at what the actual science is saying rather than keeping our heads in the sand,” said O’Carroll.

Meanwhile, the governor’s office says there are no changes planned to Hawaii’s Safe Travels program at this time, which allows travelers who are vaccinated to skip testing and quarantine.

Those who are unvaccinated must show a negative COVID test or quarantine.

In the past, Gov. David Ige has pointed to CDC guidance that says fully vaccinated people can fly safely. He said that guidance means it would be hard to force them to be tested.

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