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State health officials build up team of public health workers as Hawaii reopens its economy

State health officials, building up a team of public health workers, plan to train 320 contact tracers by mid-July in anticipation of a surge in coronavirus cases as Hawaii reopens its economy.

Each worker will be able to trace up to 20 people daily to ensure those infected are isolated to stop the spread of the disease, Health Director Bruce Anderson told a Senate COVID-19 Committee on Tuesday. The tracers will use an app called SafePaths which collects the location data of COVID-19-positive patients and their contacts.

“Quarantines have been incredibly helpful in keeping people away that have COVID-19. As we look going forward we can see a lot more occurring,” he said. “We do need to have the capability to respond quickly. We’re in this for the long run.”

Gov. David Ige is lifting the 14-day interisland travel quarantine June 16 to allow Hawaii residents to travel freely between islands and restore the local economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ige plans to announce a target date next week on when trans-Pacific travel can resume.

Hawaii began June with no new confirmed coronavirus cases in the islands, and there was just one new case on Oahu reported Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 653. Health officials said 27 infections were still active and that 609 patients have been released from isolation since the start of the outbreak — more than 90% of those infected. The state has not had any COVID-19-related fatalities for four weeks and a total of 17 coronavirus deaths since the start of the outbreak, the lowest mortality in the nation.

Also Tuesday, Queen’s Health Systems announced visitor restrictions at four of its hospitals will be lifted beginning today.

The Queen’s Medical Center, Queen’s West Oahu, Queen’s North Hawaii Community Hospital and Molokai General Hospital will now allow one visitor per patient per day, with visiting hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors, who must be 18 years or older, will be required to undergo temperature checks and health screenings, and must wear masks and practice social distancing. Patients who are confirmed or suspected of having the new coronavirus still will not be allowed visitors.

The University of Hawaii is helping to train the public health workforce so that the Department of Health can hire workers quickly if there is a spike in cases as restrictions are lifted and economic activity increases. Tuition is free and will be paid by federal grant money, though employment is not guaranteed.

“We want to make sure that a workforce is available for DOH should it need to hire those contact tracers,” Dr. Aimee Grace, director of the UH Office of Strategic Health Initiatives, told the committee, calling for more neighbor island applicants.

To date, more than 800 have applied for the contact tracing programs. The first track, for those with clinical backgrounds — such as nurses, social workers, pharmacists, physicians and physician assistants — will be taught online for 1-1/2 days beginning Monday. The second track, for those with no clinical experience but who have undergraduate degrees, will run for six weeks online. The university is also recruiting students to train as community health workers who can join the DOH’s volunteer Medical Reserve Corps. Apply at go.hawaii.edu/AQX.

The goal is to train 320 people in the first track by mid-July, 250 people in the second track and an additional 100 community health workers over the next year. The DOH still has to work out how the public health workers will be paid should the state need them as short-term hires, Anderson said.

“We can build up a cadre of contact tracers and probably handle 1,000 new cases a day,” he said. The peak period during the recent outbreak averaged 30 cases per day.

The state’s testing capacity has also substantially increased in recent weeks. State and clinical labs have now conducted more than 49,508 COVID-19 tests in Hawaii, just 1.3% returning positive.

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