HONOLULU — Hawai‘i officials said Tuesday they plan to begin randomly testing negative flu samples taken in the state for the new coronavirus.
State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said Hawai‘i would be among the first jurisdictions in the country to conduct survey tests like this for the virus. The state Department of Health aims to begin testing a few dozen samples this week and ramp up to 200 samples next week.
Hawai‘i has had two positive tests of COVID-19 to date, both from individuals who had traveled out of state. There has been no evidence that the virus has been spreading in Hawai‘i.
The new testing, which officials call a sentinel community surveillance program, will help the state determine whether the virus has been circulating under the radar.
“We continue to hope it’s not present but we don’t want to close our eyes to the possibility that it is,” Hawai‘i Gov. David Ige said at a news conference. “This program will allow us to take samples and test it for COVID-19 so we can confirm whether it is or isn’t present in our community.”
The random sample testing mirrors broad testing the state Department of Health conducts for the seasonal influenza.
In fact, the department will draw on the same flu tests for its samples. It will take the up to 400 randomly selected samples from people who have tested negative for the flu, and test 200 of these for COVID-19.
These samples will come from tests collected from patients at doctor’s offices and other outpatient settings.
According to DOH, the program will help detect COVID-19 cases earlier so appropriate steps can be taken to contain the virus.
DOH is also in contact with Centers for Disease Control regarding the Grand Princess cruise ship, in addition to the traveler who had recent travel to Washington State via Hawai‘ian Airlines. Healthcare workers exposed to the individual without proper precautions are being monitored for symptoms for 14 days.
To date, there have been 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (19 crew members and 2 passengers) on the Grand Princess cruise ship that made port calls to Nawiliwili Harbor, Kauai on Feb. 26, Honolulu Harbor on Feb. 27, Lahaina, Maui on Feb. 28, and Hilo on Feb. 29. The ship is currently held off the coast of California and additional testing of all passengers and crew is pending.
Hawai‘i’s first presumptive case was announced March 6, on O‘ahu according to DOH, a passenger on the Grand Princess cruise in Mexico from Feb. 11-21. After arriving in Mexico, the individual traveled home to Honolulu with no symptoms. While home in Honolulu, the individual became ill on March 1, sought medical care and was tested on March 6. The individual is currently isolated at home and is being monitored daily by DOH. The department is conducting a detailed trace investigation to identify, notify, and provide guidance to all close contacts as quickly as possible.
On March 8, DOH tested a second presumptive positive test result for an elderly adult who is hospitalized in serious condition on O‘ahu. The individual felt ill on March 2 in Washington State and traveled home to Honolulu on March 4. The CDC has been notified and trace back investigations are being conducted. The O‘ahu hospital has taken protective and preventive measures and is working with healthcare workers to ensure health and safety. DOH says information is still being gathered and as more information becomes available, the public will be advised.
As of Tuesday, DOH reports two people in Hawai‘i presumed COVID-19 positive (meaning individual tested positive, but results are pending confirmation at CDC); two people under investigation with tests pending; 22 people with tests that came back negative for COVID-19, and 52 total in the state that are self-monitoring.
Of the 52 individuals who are self-monitoring with public health supervision, 47 are on Oahu, 4 are on Maui, and 1 is on Kauai. These numbers fluctuate often as travelers arrive, depart, or begin and end their self-monitoring with supervision by DOH.
According to CDC, symptoms of COVID-19 can include cough, fever and shortness of breath.
DOH suggests the following to avoid catching COVID-19 and other respiratory illness:
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
• CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from illnesses, including COVID-19. Keep in mind that supplies are limited and we need to make sure there are enough masks for our front-line health care workers. If you are sick then wear a mask to protect the people around you.
• Prepare for the possibility that people may want to stay home or may be asked to stay home to prevent the spread of illness.
• If you have daily medication needs, have more than a week’s supply on hand and have as much on hand as your insurance will allow you to have.
• Not everyone can afford to stock up on supplies or has the space to store them, but anything you can arrange in advance means one less inconvenience or one less trip to the store while you are sick.
• Make family plans for the possibility of school or day care closures. Do some contingency planning in advance at the family level.
• Sign up for public notifications at health.Hawai‘i.gov/news/covid-19-updates.