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VIDEO: Department of Health’s Emily Roberson says community spread, not visitors, driving COVID-19 cases


Hawaii Department of Health epidemiologist Emily Roberson said that most of the new COVID-19 cases in the islands stem from residents, not travelers.

“The majority of our cases are really household transmission, and also small events, people gathering with friends and family. It’s still primarily community-driven outbreaks, not so much associated with travel as of right now,” Roberson said this morning on Spotlight Hawaii.

Roberson oversees the state’s contact tracing program, which now has over 300 contact tracers on Oahu, and dozens more on the neighbor islands, along with a number of support staff. She explained in detail how cases are traced, with investigators sometimes spending hours to reach people who may have been exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. Investigators typically review each case and reach out others who may have been exposed within two to 14 days of coming into contact with an infected individual.

Roberson said she feels comfortable with the current level of staffing, especially with a large number of Hawaii National Guard members helping right now, but many of those resources could go away when the CARES Act funding runs out at the end of the year. She said her team is working on creating several different action plans, depending on what happens with funding at the national level.

Roberson said her agency has a number of bilingual speakers on staff, but would like to hire more to reach out to Pacific Islanders of various backgrounds who may not speak English as a first language.

Roberson said after months of reviewing the spread of the coronavirus in Hawaii, one thing is clear: masks work. She said at the start of the pandemic, she herself was somewhat skeptical of how effective mask wearing would be, but now has no doubt.

“They’re actually much more effective than we realized they would be,” she said.

When it comes to exposure risk, Roberson said outings like going to the grocery store or passing someone in the street does not concern her very much, as long as everyone is wearing masks. What is more troubling is prolonged contact in the workplace and at household gatherings, where people feel often comfortable around friends or family, and have a tendency to let their guard down.

“People who you love and trust, and would never intentionally harm you, can transmit COVID to you by no fault of their own or by no intention,” she said.

Roberson continued, “The vast majority of transmissions that we’re seeing are happening within households as these small gatherings. When we talk about occupational clusters, it’s lunchrooms so much of the time. People will be wearing their PPE and are very serous about it when they’re doing their jobs, and then when they’re on break, they go out and hang out with their work friends, or they go take a smoke break outside.”

Spotlight Hawaii, which shines a light on issues affecting Hawaii, airs live 10:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Facebook page. Join Ryan Kalei Tsuji and Yunji de Nies this month for a conversation with guests. Click here to watch previous conversations.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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