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Hawaii’s contact tracers are trained to trace the path of coronavirus, but most are waiting to be deployed

  • GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Dr. Kristine Qureshi, UH associate dean of research and global health, left, Carol Kotsubo and Tamy DeLeon are trained contact tracers.

    GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Dr. Kristine Qureshi, UH associate dean of research and global health, left, Carol Kotsubo and Tamy DeLeon are trained contact tracers.

  • GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Contact tracer Dr. Kristine Qureshi walked past stacks of unused chairs promoting social distancing at Webster Hall on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus on Wednesday.

    GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Contact tracer Dr. Kristine Qureshi walked past stacks of unused chairs promoting social distancing at Webster Hall on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus on Wednesday.

When a surge in coronavirus cases means everything is on the line, whom do most states call?

Contact tracers.

At the highest levels, contact tracers come from a cadre of professionals like virus hunters, virologists, epidemiologists and public health investigators. But in times of crisis, the profession often includes a broader spectrum of college-­educated people, who may or may not have a medical background before undergoing training.

It’s a proven response to infectious diseases that historically has been used to stem the spread of everything from tuberculosis to HIV/AIDs, venereal disease, smallpox, measles, cholera, Ebola, H1N1 (swine flu), and more, said Dr. Kristine Qureshi, associate dean of research and global health at the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene.

That’s why the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii State Department of Health partnered to form a Contact Tracing Training Program, that by the end of July had trained 450 potential tracers, most of them with a medical background, said Aimee Grace, University of Hawaii System lead and director of the UHealthy Hawaii Initiative. There also are plans to train at least a couple of hundred more contact tracers by year’s end, Grace said.

The next track, which will turn out community contact tracers, is an expanded six-week program for those with bachelor’s degrees who don’t have clinical backgrounds. Training, which is offered digitally for six weeks and comes with academic credits, is free to participants thanks to CARES Act funds.

Those without college degrees who have a high school diploma or GED also may take free training to become community health workers, whose main goal is to link disadvantaged populations with health care resources. Full-time students of this 16-credit program can complete the coursework in one semester, but there’s a part-time program that spans a year.

To apply for either of these programs, visit go.hawaii.edu/AYD or email oshi@hawaii.edu for more information.

State Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson said most of these tracers are on the bench for when they are needed. So far, the department has only hired 20 of them, but it’s increasingly getting pressure to expand.

State Epidemiologist Sarah Park said Thursday there are 62 contact tracers on Oahu.

Tamy DeLeon, a graduate of the first training track, is a retired nurse who was inspired by the pandemic to give back to the community. Training, which included actor simulations, and her medical background have prepared her for the job, she said.

“I’m in a holding pattern waiting for their call,” DeLeon said.

Grace said completing the training program isn’t a guarantee of employment.

It’s not an easy job. Tracers have to build enough of a rapport with COVID-19 patients that they’ll be willing to talk to them when they are sick and to reveal personal details of their life. Some COVID-19 patients in Hawaii have hung up on the contact tracers either because they didn’t want to be bothered or because of language issues. Even those who cooperate may be reluctant to identify close contacts — people that they’ve been within 6 feet of for at least 15 minutes during an infectious phase. Some patients don’t want to be the reason that close contacts have to miss out on work or other aspects of their life.

Close contacts are required to quarantine for 14 days, where they are monitored for symptoms to reduce the possibility of spreading the virus.

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