Hawaii Contact Tracers are working overtime as COVID cases increase



Amid rising COVID-19 cases in Hawaii, state health officials are struggling to reach people who have been in close contact with positive coronavirus cases and are calling on the community to help contain the rapidly spreading virus through vaccination.

In the past six months, Hawaiian health officials have consistently contacted more than 80% of the close contacts of known COVID-19 cases, reaching more than 90% in a few weeks. However, in the last three weeks of July, that number dropped to two-thirds.

Data from the first week of August has not yet been released, but this week the state reported record-high coronavirus cases, mainly due to the highly contagious Delta variant.

More than 60% of the Hawaiian population is vaccinated, but the virus is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated people. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

The increasing number of cases and community broadcast means that while restaurants, bars, and other establishments may collect names of guests for follow-up purposes, not every person who has been in close contact with a positive case will be notified.

“We have to set priorities here,” said Chantelle Matagi, who heads the Pacific Islands contact tracing team at the Ministry of Health, during a press conference on Friday. “We are in crisis mode”

She said her team worked overtime and she believes they can still reach an estimated 95% of their close contacts every day.

Health Department spokesman Brooks Baehr said the agency is prioritizing vulnerable populations when it contacts people, including people who may have been exposed in schools and prisons.

He said the state is trying to increase its contact tracing staff, but that can only do so to a limited extent.

“No matter how many we add, I don’t think it will be enough to get every close contact,” he said.

On the island of Hawaii, Jason Dela Cruz from the island of Hawaii The Office of Public Health Preparedness said it has enlisted community partners to help spread the word when they are unable to reach everyone who may have been exposed to the virus.

The Delta variant – responsible for more than 80% of the most recent cases in Hawaii – is much easier to transmit than previous strains of the coronavirus.

More than 60% of the state is vaccinated, but vaccinated people can still transmit the variant, even though they are far less likely to be hospitalized or die than those who are not vaccinated.

Health Department officials say they continue to define “close contact” as someone who is exposed to the virus for at least 15 minutes. Some scientists have argued that just a second exposure to the Delta variant could result in transmission, although other scientists deny it.

The Department of Health still only contacts people who have been exposed for at least 15 minutes, but even then there are so many people to call that sometimes contact tracers don’t have hours to reach everyone in a day, Matagi said .

“It’s a situation where everyone is working on deck,” she said. “I have a lot of members (on my team) who stay past their five o’clock to make sure these calls are made.”

Personnel changes

The DOH has 269 contact tracers in use on Friday, up from 299 earlier this week, Baehr said.

There are 30 fewer contact tracers than earlier this week, ”he said. “We’re trying to boot up. We hope to be able to add contact tracers. “

Matagi said many contact tracers are on vacation, but some have been recalled amid the surge. She said the National Guard was still providing public relations assistance.

Last year, the workforce at the health department was turned upside down. Top leadership resigned and local politicians raised concerns over the past year about the size of the contact tracing.

During the COVID-19 surge last summer, the health department hired Emily Roberson to lead the contact tracing program. She revised the program, particularly to more effectively reach the Filipino and Pacific islanders who became disproportionately ill. But Roberson resigned in April.

Baehr said on Friday that he did not know whether someone actually replaced Roberson after her resignation in the health department. He noted that Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist who replaced former state epidemiologist Sarah Park, is ultimately responsible for the contact tracing.

Kemble is on vacation among the staff this week. Baehr said that in her absence, Ann Buff, formerly of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will step in.

The health department is also facing a lawsuit after virologist Jennifer Smith was fired in May. Smith was a whistleblower who notified officials of overwhelmed employees last year.

To be vaccinated

Health officials said repeatedly on Friday that contact tracing is only part of the answer to stop rising cases. Baehr urged people to take personal responsibility and get vaccinated, noting that the agency has hosted hundreds of vaccination events every month to improve access.

Janet Berreman, Kauai district health officer, said people who feel sick should get tested, stop going to work, and stop socializing.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, there are things going around.’ Yes, the thing that is going on in our community is COVID, ”she said. “And it’s the delta variant, and it’s very transferable.”

In July, nearly half of those unavailable for contact tracers in Honolulu did not answer the phone. Fifteen percent did not have a phone number, and government officials called the wrong number 22 percent of the time. Twelve percent refused to be interviewed.

State data shows that in February, March and June, more than a fifth of those who did not contact contact tracers refused to be interviewed.

Matagi said a challenge to effective contact tracing is misinformation.

“People misunderstand science for political purposes,” said Matagi. “It’s not a political issue. That has to do with illness and diseases. “


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