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Local epidemiologist calls for better COVID data systems, booster requirement for Safe Travels

covid test Virus Outbreak California
Jae C. Hong/AP
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AP
Scott Gutierrez puts his swab sample into a tube at a BusTest Express mobile COVID-19 testing site in Paramount, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

As the state contends with a record increase in COVID-19 cases, a local epidemiologist says the state needs to better invest in the health department and its data systems to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

Hawaiʻi hit a record 6,252 new COVID-19 cases across the state on Tuesday. About 75% of the state is fully vaccinated.

The state Department of Health temporarily stopped reporting positivity rates because it is inundated with uncounted tests.

"DOH systems have not been able to process the large volume of positive and negative cases in recent days. As a result, thousands of cases, both positive and negative, have not been reported," the department said Saturday. "In order to expedite the processing and reporting of positive cases, DOH will suspend the processing of negative cases."

Hawaii COVID-19 Dashboard on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022
Hawaiʻi Department of Health
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Hawaiʻi COVID-19 Dashboard on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

East-West Center epidemiologist Tim Brown predicted this situation and warned people weeks ago to invest in a higher quality mask.

"I think the latest numbers would indicate we're still on an upward trend across the islands," Brown said. "Again, we've done nothing to try and throw any circuit breakers to slow this continued spread down."

In light of the health department's data reporting problems, Brown said he considers the current situation dire.

"I think the problem we've got is that, once again, I think we've exceeded the capacity of our already rather sparsely supported Department of Health," he told The Conversation. "We never really staffed up DOH other than the contact tracing branches during the COVID pandemic, even though it's been going on for two years at this point."

He said the state has clearly not updated its data systems the way it should have.

"I would think that this kind of reporting would be almost automated at this point, so that it wouldn't require extensive human intervention, at least to get the daily numbers out," Brown said.

"The hospital data system is also problematic. Most of us still rely on numbers we're getting from Josh Green, rather than any sort of systematic reporting. And that's not even done through DOH. That's usually done through the hospital association."

As for plans that could be put in place now, Brown called on the state to institute a booster shot requirement for the Safe Travels program.

"I'm still concerned about just the general lack of response when we've obviously got an increasing epidemic on our hands," Brown said.

He said the public should work from home if they can and stay out of crowded spaces.

Find more information on vaccine and testing sites at hawaiicovid19.com.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Jan. 18, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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