Remaining diligent; Contact tracers still at work as COVID vaccine rollout continues

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald S&G Lab staff talk Wednesday while working on testing people for COVID-19 at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo.

  • CHAR

Nearly 300 contact tracers are still at work in Hawaii as the focus in the fight against COVID-19 has turned largely to ongoing vaccination efforts.

“There’s been a lot of focus on vaccine, obviously, and it’s very relevant, but I think we should bear in mind that the vaccination is just one piece and one layer of keeping our community safe,” said state Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char on Wednesday during a livestream with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “So we still need to be paying attention to doing testing and identifying people who are infected with COVID, and we still need to really be diligent about doing contact tracing and about isolation and quarantine …”

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The DOH maintains nearly 300 people for contact tracing throughout all four counties, she said.

“This is going to become more important if we start seeing some of the very transmissible variants here,” Char said. “It’s going to be really important to do the contact tracing because we want to limit the ability of that particular variant to spread to others in the community.”

Former Health Director Bruce Anderson, who retired in September, and former State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park, who went on leave in September and officially left the department at the end of December, were widely faulted for failing to build a robust testing and contact tracing program and for refusing staffing assistance from the Hawaii National Guard, the Associated Press previously reported.

A DOH spokesman said that as of Wednesday there are 31 contact tracers on the Big Island, including two district health office investigators, two district health office contract staff contact tracers, two district health office public health nurses, 15 Hawaii National Guard members and 10 other DOH staff.

“Although a lot of resources have shifted to vaccination efforts, contact tracing remains an integral part of our COVID response,” said District Health Officer Eric Honda in an email.

Char also expressed concern and urged caution about Super Bowl gatherings this weekend.

“If we look at things that we’re telling people to avoid, right — outdoors is better than indoors, being farther apart is better than being close together, wearing our mask is better than not having a mask — and you look at the ingredients for a good Super Bowl party, it’s all the wrong ingredients.

“We’ll be indoors, and we’ll be gathered for three hours or more and we won’t have our masks on because everyone’s going to be eating and drinking and we’ll be cheering loudly for our teams,” she continued. “That’s just a recipe for disaster.”

The DOH is encouraging people to watch television at home and gather with their households to watch the game. She asked that people avoid the temptation to gather and have large parties.

“Because just as we saw with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, if people are gathering we will see a bump and we will see a spread thereafter,” Char said. “And if we start getting variants that are much more transmissible, we can be headed in the wrong direction really quickly.”

Char also spoke about a number of other COVID-related topics, including the ongoing vaccine rollout and how the state is currently faring.

“I think right now, Hawaii is in an OK position,” Char said. “We’re doing a little bit better than the rest of the nation.”

The country seems to have crossed its third and largest wave of the virus, she said.

At its peak during the second wave, Char said the United States had about 60,000 new cases per day, while the peak of the third wave saw about 240,000 new virus cases per day.

“In Hawaii, we managed to avoid seeing such steep numbers,” she said. “We did have a bit of a rise, especially tied to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, and we seem to have stabilized from that right now. So overall, we’re doing well and that’s just a tribute to the entire community and the efforts of everybody here to wear our masks and avoid all of those large social gatherings to the best of our extent.”

Char said, too, that she’s “quite pleased” with the state’s ongoing vaccination effort, and there have been about 171,000 doses so far administered.

The challenge, though, remains with vaccine supplies.

“We have mechanisms in place that we could easily administer over 80,000 doses a week here in Hawaii … ,” Char said. “The challenge is that we’re just not receiving not even half of that amount on a weekly allotment.

“But it’s good to know that people really want the vaccine, and we’re poised to give it.”

Char said federal vaccine allocations to the state are slowly starting to ramp up, but the big change in supplies will come if and when additional vaccines are approved for use.

Although Lt. Gov. Josh Green said earlier this week that he anticipates Hawaii to be safe enough to permit larger gatherings come May, for her part, Char said it’s still too early to make such a determination.

Char said she was optimistic that the more people who are vaccinated, the better place Hawaii will be in, but there are many factors that affect the community’s situation.

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“If we get variants, that are very highly transmissible, that’s going to change things for us because the amount of people that will need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity will go up significantly,” she said. “It also depends on the vaccine supply. … So I think it’s a little too early to call. I’m optimistic that we’re definitely moving in the right direction. … I just am not ready to say how fast we’re going to get to that place yet.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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