Feature   Defense News

Hawaii National Guard Conducts COVID-19 Testing on Freeway

Sept. 14, 2020 | BY ARMY 1ST LT. ANYAH PEATROSS

The Hawaii National Guard Joint Task Force is continuing to help the city and county of Honolulu with a COVID-19 surge testing program through Sept. 14.

Navy Vice Adm. (Dr.) Jerome M. Adams, U.S. surgeon general, coordinated with Honolulu County Mayor Kirk Caldwell to administer a total of 60,000 tests ​on Oahu, with 5,000 tests being conducted daily since Aug. 26.

COVID-19 cases in the triple digits remained steady, causing the state to increase public access to test sites. Within days, thousands of residents took advantage of the free, self-administered COVID-19 swab test. Despite traffic congestion and prolonged wait times, the residents were thankful for help from first responders and the guard.

Several soldiers wearing face masks and gloves stand in a line.
COVID-19 Registration
A Hawaii National Guard member signals for the next person in line in order to verify COVID-19 registration during testing in the Tetsuo Harano Tunnel on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, Sept. 3, 2020. The Hawaii fire department, police department, National Guard and nurses were set to test over 5,000 residents throughout the day.
Photo By: Army Sgt. John Schoebel, Hawaii Army National Guard
VIRIN: 200903-Z-SV327-018

''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 Army 1st Sgt. Lane Martinez, the senior noncommissioned officer assigned to Company Bravo with Task Force Oahu, HING JTF. ''Two units from the HING are also assisting the city and county of Honolulu by providing onsite surge testing registration support.''

Oahu leaders came up with a solution to temporarily use Hawaii's largest interstate, the John A. Burns Freeway (H-3), and it's Tetsuo Harano Tunnels as drive-thru test sites. Normal access in both directions on the H-3 were suspended and only people interested or registered to participate in the drive-thru COVID-19 surge tests were allowed to access the freeway.

''This is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind collaboration,'' said Hawaii Gov. 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 with the task force shared their experiences of taking a COVID-19 test themselves at the H-3 test site. They handed their pre-registration forms to a fellow guardsman wearing a safety vest, gloves, a KN95 mask and a face shield. He shortly thereafter returned their forms along with individual test kits each containing a labeled vial, nasal swab and napkin. Then the guardsman instructed the driver to reenter the flow of traffic and continue further into the tunnel to an open station manned by nurses who provided guidance on performing the self-administered swab test.

Army 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," Tougher said "It seemed to be well organized and well run. Overall, I thought the testing was simple and did not feel too invasive, not uncomfortable.''

Guardsmen were stationed at both entries of the tunnels wearing personal protective equipment. The tunnels are equipped with powerful heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, making it safe for workers wearing PPE while minimizing their exposure to carbon monoxide. Martinez recognizes the similarities at the H-3 site compared to other sites, noting some of its advantages and challenges.

A guardsman helps administer a COVID-19 test to someone in a car stopped on the roadway.
COVID Test
Army Spc. Kris-Anne Basilio, with the Hawaii National Guard, confirms the information on a vial with an individual before they drive forward to perform a self-administered test on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, Sept. 3, 2020. About 30 National Guardsmens and 50 nurses were used in each direction to accomplish the mass testing.
Photo By: Army Sgt. John Schoebel
VIRIN: 200903-Z-SV327-005

''The H3 site is similar to other surge test sites, as they have been categorized as either drive-up or walk-up,'' Martinez said. ''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-19 support on a freeway is unprecedented for the Hawaii National Guard. The soldiers and airmen who are a part of the task force 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 Hawaii Health Department with COVID-19 mapping.

According to Army Lt. Col. Wesley Kawakami, former commander of the HING element on the island of Hawaii, the test wasn't bad at all.

''It was very comfortable,'' Kawakami said. ''The size of the swab is as big as a coffee stirrer. I would do it again.''

For Army 2nd Lt. Alnor Cabonce, this was his first COVID-19 swab test and first experience witnessing surge test operations. He understands that Hawaii is 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,'' Cabonce said. ''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 guardsmen 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.

(Army 1st Lt. Anyah Peatross is assigned to the State of Hawaii, Department of Defense).