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NEWS | Nov. 20, 2020

Slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Hawaii military communities

By Amber Kurka Public Health Command-Pacific

Over the last few weeks, new COVID-19 cases throughout the United States have undergone a staggering increase.

However, here in Hawaii, Department of Defense contact tracers stand ready to respond to potential COVID-19 surges within military communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contact tracing is key to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracing helps protect individuals, families, and local communities by letting people know they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and should monitor their health for signs and symptoms of the virus.

As part of a joint public health working group, DoD public health officials have been working to train service members and civilian employees on how to conduct contact tracing on Oahu to help slow the spread of the virus.

To help in the fight, Public Health Command-Pacific and Tripler Army Medical Center have been leading the way since the end of April to ensure Army units have trained Soldiers that are ready to respond as contact tracers in the event of a COVID-19 positive case or close contact within their unit.

The CDC defines a close contact as anyone who was within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more. The CDC warns that an infected person can spread COVID-19 starting from 48 hours (or two days) before the person has any symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19, making the need to have trained contact tracers extremely important to slow the spread of the virus.

“Contact tracing is important because an individual may be exposed to the virus, and if positive, that person may unknowingly spread it to others,” explained Lt. Col. Ronald Cole, Public Health Command-Pacific’s Human Health Services director. “It is crucial to catch the number of exposures as quickly as possible. If we do not capture the exposure in time, one person with the virus can become five people, and five people can become 25, and so on.”

To help in this effort, Army Public Health experts rely on Soldiers from organizations like the 25th Infantry Division to help trace down contacts that may have been exposed to the virus.

“Last spring, we collaborated with the 25th ID to provide ‘contact tracing 101’ to 90% of the units at Schofield Barracks,” explained Capt. Everline Atandi, a Tripler Army Medical Center Public Health nurse. “By having trained contact tracers within Army units, we are able to quickly reach out to Soldiers and beneficiaries and to also report cases to the Hawaii Department of Health and Army in a timely manner.”

To be as timely as possible trained Soldiers begin the contact tracing process as soon as someone is identified as COVID-19 positive or a is close contact.

“Contact tracers reach out to positive COVID cases, along with their close contacts, to make sure that they receive the information they need,” explained Atandi. “They explain to the contact whether they need to isolate or quarantine, while also providing preventive information to keep the spread from happening.”

For military communities, this is extremely important in order to ensure the health of the force and mission readiness.

“We have to always maintain our number one priority, readiness,” said Cole. “Contact tracing enhances the mission by reducing the number of exposures and ensuring our warfighters are healthy to deploy and fight our nation’s wars.”

While contact tracing is key to slowing the spread of the virus, the CDC states that contact tracing works best with everyday preventive actions, such as washing your hands, avoiding close contact with people outside your home, covering your mouth and nose with a mask when around others, covering coughs and sneezes, and by cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily.

“I want the military community to understand that people still need to follow public health guidelines,” said Atandi. “When health officials say wear a mask, wear a mask. When they say wash your hands, wash your hands. When they say we need to not gather in large groups, we need to not gather in large groups. People need to listen to the reliable information that is being put out there.”

While the holiday season quickly approaches and more tourists flock to the islands, Cole remains optimistic that military contact tracers will be able to combat potential surges within military communities on Oahu.

“Since we have been focused on increasing our number of contact tracers, I am confident that we will be able to handle an increase in cases here in Hawaii,” said Cole. “Since the start of the pandemic we’ve streamlined a lot of information and we are increasing our process to be able to capture any potential COVID contacts or cases from its inception. This fall and winter, contact tracing will be at the forefront, catching potential infected cases before they test positive.”

While the military is ready to respond to an increase in cases, both Cole and Atandi agreed that now is not the time to stop following public health guidelines.

“Military health officials are doing their best to keep everyone safe,” said Cole. “Even though it seems hard to want to follow public health guidelines all of the time, it’s in the best interest of the community and all involved so that we can return to enjoying the beautiful islands of Hawaii. We must all continue to do our part to slow the spread.”