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Honolulu chosen as 1 of 7 US airport sites to allow China flights

Honolulu (HI) International Airport (Ron Cogswell/Flickr)

The state is scrambling to prepare isolated quarantine areas for an unspecified number of additional travelers diverted here on flights from China.

In a surprise move, federal officials announced Friday that Honolulu will be one of seven airports where all flights to the U.S. from China will be funneled starting Sunday — amid growing fears over the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

The U.S. declared a public health emergency due to the outbreak in China, placing a temporary ban on foreign nationals who recently traveled to the country — other than immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The federal government also ordered an unprecedented 14-day quarantine of those who visited Hubei province within two weeks.

State officials were stunned by the emergency order by President Donald Trump to contain the deadly virus but say they are preparing to keep the local community safe. There are no suspected cases of coronavirus here, and officials say there is low concern.

“I understand people would prefer that Hawaii not have been designated, but that was a federal decision,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency room physician. “It was a sudden flurry of decisions from D.C. that set in motion the additional need to plan for quarantines. That’s what caught everyone off guard. We’re not expecting to have a large number of cases. We’re expecting less traffic, unless there’s a sudden emergency. Hopefully we’ll have none, but we are ready to screen anybody as necessary.”

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There is only one direct flight from Shanghai to Honolulu, on China Eastern, which runs six days a week, though in March the airline plans to reduce the flights to two days a week. American, Delta and United airlines already have suspended service from China, and others are anticipated to follow suit.

But questions remain as to how many flights will be diverted to Honolulu and whether the state has the capacity, in the worst-case scenario, to quarantine large numbers of ill travelers.

Hawaii hospitals have the capacity to quarantine some infectious patients, but travelers who aren’t ill enough to go to the hospital may be quarantined in more isolated hotels or possibly in military housing, Green said.

The reason the Honolulu airport was selected was because of its location between Asia and the West Coast and its capacity for enhanced screening at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, which has one of only 20 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quarantine stations staffed with medical workers who screen ill travelers entering the United States to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

However, state Rep. Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley) called for the complete closure of the Honolulu airport to any passengers potentially exposed to coronavirus.

“This is playing Russian Roulette with our economy, and we don’t deserve to be put on this list,” Ward said, adding that he will ask Gov. David Ige and the White House to remove Honolulu from the list of designated airports, which include New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

“Putting Hawaii on the list is too great a danger to our economy,” he said in a news release. “The hospitality industry is one of the most volatile industries in the world — just one active case of coronavirus reported in Honolulu could stop the flow of the millions of tourists who want to visit Hawaii each year. It’s just too risky for us.”

U.S. citizens who have traveled to other parts of mainland China will be screened at the seven designated airports and, if they have no symptoms, will be allowed to travel home to be monitored by local health departments, according to the CDC.

Christian Lawlor, 18, and his mother arrived in Hawaii on Friday morning on a direct flight from Shanghai after visiting his grandparents in Chongqing, which is next to Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. He was expecting to see people in hazmat gear waiting to quarantine passengers in Honolulu but was surprised that there was no screening at all for the coronavirus.

“We just walked through the airport. The only thing that seemed out of place was on the TV screens: ‘People visiting from China self-quarantine.’ People didn’t even have face masks,” he said. “Everything you see on the news is it’s asymptomatic, with a long incubation time. What does it mean to self-quarantine? A lot of people are just not going to take it seriously. I feel like the ball is being dropped.”

That was a stark contrast to the scene in China, where Lawlor described police squads and medical workers vigilantly taking the temperatures of passengers.

“At the very least they’re screening. You’re funneled in; people at each point are guiding you along from Shanghai to Honolulu. (Here) it’s another day in Honolulu.”

While the CDC is responsible for quarantines at the airport, state Health Director Bruce Anderson has broad powers to enforce quarantines if a person poses an infectious disease risk to the population, Green said.

“We’ve put into place several layers of protection for society from infectious disease. Any suspected cases coming from high-risk areas will be caught at the airport,” he said, adding that the state is working to secure quarantine areas away from the most populated areas on Oahu. “I don’t expect at this point a large quarantine of any kind because we’re doing a good job discouraging travelers from China from coming to Hawaii. If the federal government decides to divert … a plane here, we will be ready to make sure there’s not any exposure to our citizens. We’re going to discourage that because we’re a small market and have a smaller health care system.”

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© 2020 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser