Hawaii Guard recon COVID testing conducted on freeway
By 1st Lt. Anyah Peatross
/ Published September 10, 2020
The Hawaii National Guard (HING) Joint Task Force (JTF) assisted the City and County of Honolulu with their surge testing program from Aug. 26 through Sept. 14, 2020. U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams and Honolulu County Mayor Kirk Caldwell coordinated multiple to administer 60,000 tests on Oahu, with 5,000 of those tests being conducted daily.
COVID-19 cases in the triple digits remained steady, causing the state to increase public access to test sites. Within days, thousands of local residents took advantage of a free self-administered COVID-19 swab test. Some of the challenges experienced by residents were traffic congestion and prolonged wait times, but all were thankful for the first responders and National Guard assistance.
“Task Force Oahu is supporting Honolulu County’s efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while meeting the general public’s needs such as safety, security, and community health protection,” said 1st Sgt. Lane Martinez, senior non-commissioned officer assigned to Company Bravo with Task Force Oahu, HING JTF. “Two units from the HING are also assisting the City & County of Honolulu by providing onsite surge testing registration support.”
Oahu leaders came up with a solution to temporarily utilize Hawaii’s largest interstate, the John A. Burns Freeway (H-3) and it’s Tetsuo Harano Tunnels as a drive-thru test site. Normal access in both directions on the H-3 were suspended and only people interested or registered to participate in the drive-thru COVID surge tests were allowed to access the freeway.
“This is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind collaboration,” said Hawaii Governor David Ige. “The H-3 Freeway is a place where we can do mass testing without disrupting lives and traffic in urban neighborhoods.”
Three officers of the HING JTF shared their experiences of taking a COVID test themselves at the H-3 test site. They handed their pre-registration forms to a fellow Hawaii Air Guardsman wearing a safety vest, gloves, a KN95 mask and a face shield. He shortly returned their forms along with individual test kits each containing a labeled vial, nasal swab, and napkin. Then the Airman instructed the driver to re-enter the flow of traffic and continue further into the tunnel to an open station manned by nurses who provide guidance on performing the self-administered swab test.
Col. Michael Tougher III, commander of Task Force Oahu, was excited to see Soldiers and Airmen supporting the registration for surge testing and remarked on its simplicity.
“It was much quicker than I expected. It seemed to be well organized and well run,” said Tougher III. “Overall, I thought the testing was simple and did not feel too invasive, not uncomfortable.”
Guardsmen were stationed at both entries of the tunnels along H-3 wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). The tunnels are equipped with powerful heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems making it safe for workers wearing PPE and minimizes their exposure to carbon monoxide. Martinez recognizes the similarities at the H-3 site compared to other sites as well as noting some of its advantages and challenges.
“The H3 site is similar to other surge test sites, as they have been categorized as either drive up or walk up,” said Martinez. “As a drive-up site, the H-3 location provided more protection from the elements, but the tunnel added the challenges of channeled wind and vehicle noise.”
Conducting COVID support on a freeway is unprecedented for the Hawaii National Guard. The Soldiers and Airmen who are a part of the HING JTF have deployed to war zones, supported communities after hurricanes and lava flows, but with COVID-19, everything that they have been asked to do is new. Airport medical screening, distributing PPE to communities, swabbing prisoners for the virus and assisting the State of Hawaii Department of Health with COVID mapping. According to the driver of the group, former commander of the HING element on the island of Hawaii, Lt. Col. Wesley Kawakami, the test wasn’t bad at all.
“It was very comfortable” said Kawakami. “The size of the swab is as big as a coffee stirrer. I would do it again.”
For 2nd Lt. Alnor Cabonce, this was his first COVID-19 swab test and first experience witnessing surge test operations. He understands Hawaii’s going through a difficult time and is hopeful that these opportunities will help the state get well soon.
“It's important to have these tests because it allows us to determine how many people actually have COVID,” said Cabonce. “I think overall it's better to get tested so that there is data to analyze and improve upon the way we’ve been combating COVID."
About 800 Soldiers and Airmen support more than three-dozen missions carried out on a daily basis on six islands. The Guard works alongside its partners at all levels of government, healthcare organizations and volunteers and together they are trying to keep the frontlines safe and the people of Hawaii informed.