- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 10, 2020

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii 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 Hawaii 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.

Hawaii 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 Hawaii, but concerns have depressed travel to the islands.

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,” Hawaii 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.

Meanwhile, local researchers sharply downgraded their economic forecast for Hawaii as coronavirus concerns hurt travel to the state.

Economists at the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization said in a blog post they expect visitor arrivals to drop by 13% and visitor spending to sink 17% in the April-June period of this year.

They forecast nearly 6,000 job losses by the third quarter of the year and a “very restrained pace of hiring” for the next several years.

The economists said, however, that the situation is very fluid and forecasts may change.

“The longer the virus spreads, the greater the human and economic toll,” the blog post said.

An advisory panel on the economic effects of the virus is scheduled to hold its first meeting on Thursday. The committee, appointed by House Speaker Scott Saiki, is expected to advise the state House of Representatives on how the virus will likely affect Hawaii’s economy and what steps the state might take to blunt its impact.

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