Hawaii’s contact tracing program has identified clusters of the coronavirus spreading among households, workplaces and gatherings among friends and family.
“It’s still primarily community-driven outbreaks, not so much associated with travel as of right now,” Department of Health epidemiologist Emily Roberson, who oversees the state’s contact tracing program, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii on Wednesday.
“People really let their guards down around their friends and family,” she added. “The vast majority of transmission we’re seeing is happening within households at these small gatherings. When we talk about occupational clusters, it’s lunch rooms. So much of the time people will be wearing their PPE (personal protective equipment) and are very serious about it when they’re doing their jobs, and then when they’re on break they go hang out with their work friends or they go take a smoke break outside … and you have your mask off — that’s the real risk of transmission.”
The chief of the DOH Disease Investigation Branch since July has built a robust COVID-19 contact tracing program with help from the Hawaii National Guard.
Statewide, there are now 417 people directly working on case investigation or contact tracing, including 311 on Oahu and another 45 support staff as the state’s coronavirus cases climb back into triple-digit territory.
Health officials on Wednesday reported 118 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 16,205 cases. The official state COVID-19 death toll remains unchanged at 222, though health officials have yet to verify coronavirus as a factor in 17 Big island deaths. Of the state’s total infection count, 1,376 are currently considered active cases.
Roberson said the contact tracing program has substantially more capacity to handle a “whole lot more cases,” and is still recruiting for specialized roles, including for Pacific Islander outreach and investigation.
However, once federal CARES Act funds expire at year-end, it is unclear how the contact tracing program will continue.
“A lot of those decisions about what happens after Dec. 31 are above my pay grade,” Roberson said. The uncertainty underscores how critical it is for Hawaii to keep COVID-19 case counts low.
“People just need to keep in mind that in general the greatest risk to them … and the greatest risk that they pose to others, is to their loved ones and to their friends,” she said. “Just regular everyday activities … pau hana-type and backyard barbecue-type activities, and then at work in the lunchroom, smoke breaks and that sort of things.”