Imminent loss of federal resources could affect Hawaii’s contact tracing efforts

Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) Dr. Emily Roberson is leading her department’s intensive COVID-19 contact tracing efforts in Hawaii. In a November 11th interview with the Star-Advertiser, she spoke about the complex process used by the DOH to conduct contact tracing in the state.

According to Dr. Roberson, an immense amount of work goes into the process, which aims to trace possible COVID transmissions in Hawaii by identifying positive cases and tracking their recent contacts. 417 DOH employees are currently working on these efforts throughout the state, which are also supported by the Hawaii National Guard through CARES Act funding.

 

Get the latest state-specific policy intelligence for the health care sector delivered to your inbox.

 

These efforts have provided Hawaii with valuable health safety information by allowing the DOH to identify trends in the spread of the virus, such as how Hawaii residents can avoid being in situations where propagation of the virus is more likely.

“It’s still primarily community-driven outbreaks, not so much associated with travel as of right now,” Roberson stated in the interview.

Using the data discovered through this process, the DOH has concluded that places such as households, workplaces, and large family gatherings are where most transmissions emerge. This valuable information informs residents about ways in which they can limit spread of the virus But, with funding from the CARES Act expected to be depleted and the National Guard leaving at the end of December, contact tracing in Hawaii could soon lose crucial support.

The federal government allocated $1.25 billion to Hawaii through the CARES Act in March, of which the state delegated around $860 million to “coronavirus response, prevention and recovery activities.” These funds, which not only support contact tracing but also things like housing security, small business support, and health protections, are set to be used up by the end of November.

Furthermore, the CARES Act also provides essential funding for the National Guard to assist Hawaii with COVID response efforts. The law states that any funds not used by the end of December must be returned to the federal government, which is also when the National Guard will be leaving.

“We are very, very thankful for the role that the Hawaii National Guard has played in this effort. They’ve been truly essential and invaluable,” Roberson stated.

National Guard members have helped map COVID transmissions and contact potentially exposed people. Given the important contributions the National Guard provides to the DOH, its upcoming departure could affect the department’s capacity to continue informative contact tracing activities.

When asked about what might happen after the National Guard leaves, Roberson did not elaborate and responded, “A lot of those decisions about what happens after December 31st are above my paygrade.”