Working long shifts, National Guard members scramble to ramp up contact tracing efforts

Updated: Aug. 20, 2020 at 5:42 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Of the approximately 100 new contact tracers now stationed at the Hawaii Convention Center, about a quarter are members of the Hawaii National Guard.

On Thursday, Hawaii News Now got a firsthand glimpse of their work in tracking the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID mapping” is the National Guard’s term for the practice of contact tracing, which consists of reaching out to someone infected with COVID-19 and then subsequently reaching out to people they have had close contact with to see who the virus may have spread to.

“It is very busy,” said Lt. Col. Paul Agena, who is leading the Hawaii National Guard’s response to the pandemic on Oahu.

“There’s a tremendous amount of cases. These soldiers come in at 7:30 and they are working straight for well past 12 hours to catch up the work. There’s a great plan in place and we are making a big difference.”

Hawaii National Guardsman John Kayanan volunteered to assist in mapping after seeing the virus spread.

He says it didn’t take very long for him to see how fast COVID-19 moves. As soon as he makes contact with a case, he said, the network of ensuing contacts is vast.

“It can go from two to even 20 or more,” Kayanan said. “If anybody within 6 feet that’s been around a person for more than 15 minutes, that would be considered a contact. So if a case was in that range or within that range of five people, all those five people are now considered close contacts.”

Kayanan and his fellow National Guard personnel can place up to 200 phone calls in a single shift. Extensive work that is all part of being on the frontlines of an entirely different assignment.

“It is something completely outside of their mission set,” Agena said.

“They all have different jobs whether they are artillery men or mechanics and so forth, so to do something like this is very new and they are very excited to be a part of this program.”

The duties are comprehensive. All contact info is entered in a spreadsheet and depending if contacts follow quarantine regulations, closing a case could take 14 days or months.

And that’s not even the most challenging part of the job.

“Contacting contacts that haven’t been told that they were, that they’ve been in contact with others,” Kayanan said.

“So it’s very important that everyone social distance so that we don’t have to make those phone calls to let you know that ‘Hey, so sorry, so-and-so linked us to you and you might have contracted COVID-19.”

There are nearly 30 guards members overseeing mapping work on Oahu and the National Guard says personnel are currently being trained on Maui.

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