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U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard says state health department leaders ‘need to go’

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U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard today posted a second twitter message calling for a change in leadership at the Hawaii state Department of Health, which has recently come under fire for its contact tracing capacity.

Gabbard’s tweet to Gov. David Ige said DOH director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park “need to go.”

“This is your responsibility. Your Health Director is keeping hundreds of trained contact tracers ‘on the bench’ because he doesn’t think they’re needed. Meanwhile, we have the highest infection rate in the nation. This is gross negligence,” Gabbard said in her tweet.

Gabbard’s latest tweet is similar to an April 8 tweet, where she said. “It’s time for @LtGovJoshGreen to take charge of Hawaii’s coronavirus crisis. I’m calling on everyone in Hawaii to join me in demanding the resignation of Dept of Health leaders Bruce Anderson & Sarah Park who’re putting the lives of ourselves & our loved ones in grave danger …by failing to take necessary actions to protect us from coronavirus. Latest example is their continued refusal to carry out most basic & effective policies to prevent spread of coronavirus: contact tracing, testing & isolation of those who’ve been in contact with the disease.”

Gabbard’s latest call for action follows a grievance filed by the Hawaii Government Employees Association that alleged there were only 15 epidemiological specialists on Oahu and three on the neighbor islands to perform contact tracing for thousands of potential COVID-19 cases.

The grievance, which was emailed to state Department of Heath director Bruce Anderson on Friday, was filed on behalf of employees who are performing or have performed COVID-19 contact tracing, field swabbing and outreach response duties.

The state DOH told the Star-Advertiser Monday that it was not available for immediate comment. It still hasn’t responded to today’s follow-up request for comment.

The union alleges that far fewer employees are working in contract tracing than DOH has publicly indicated and that they are overworked. According to HGEA’s grievance, epidemiological specialists have been working daily overtime, including weekends and holidays. The union said some employees were mandated to work six-days a week and were required to answer and respond to phone calls during non-work hours and participate in last-minute meetings about newly assigned cases.

HGEA’s allegations are in direct contrast to comments made by Anderson during an Aug. 3 media briefing and by State Epidemiologist Sarah Park during an Aug. 6 hearing of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19. Both said the state has about 105 active contract tracers that could be increased as needed.

Anderson said DOH can tap other staff members, public health nurses and Hawaii National Guard members. He added that the state has a bench of about 450 tracers that had been trained at the University of Hawaii. But as of last week, only about 20 contact tracers had been hired from this partnership, which was funded with $2.5 million in CARES Act money.

The grievance continues an ongoing debate in Hawaii on whether the state has enough contact tracers — the people hired to locate everyone who comes in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green said today that Hawaii needs at least 400 to 500 contact tracers to handle the current increase in cases.

Recommendations vary, but George Washington University proposes a staffing ratio of at least 40 contact tracers per 100,000 population, which in Hawaii is about 564 . The National Association of County and City Health Officials says there should be 30 tracers per 100,000 population — about 420 tracers in Hawaii.

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