Urgent intervention is required to compel the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) to immediately deploy sufficient contact tracers in order to protect the people of Hawaii from sickness and deaths due to unchecked spreading of the coronavirus.
It wouldn’t be the first time that DOH has failed in its responsibilities, or the first time that intervention is required to correct its neglect. In this case, however, there’s no time to wait for the feds or concerned citizens to file lawsuits. The governor has executive powers — ideally, he should have used them even before this sees print.
Star-Advertiser reporter Allison Schaefers wrote that a joint program with the University of Hawaii has already trained 450 potential tracers, most of them with a medical background (“Contact tracers: trained but not deployed,” Aug 10). In a separate story, Schaefers reported on a surprise visit by a state Senate committee to the DOH on Friday, that exposed understaffing and poor working conditions (“Need for tracing grows”). Quoting from that story: “We only saw about 10 workers and two supervisors here,” (Sen. Sharon) Moriwaki said. “It was like a sweatshop. People were working 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, including weekends. One person had a caseload of 190 cases, another 100.”
Contact tracing must be done within 24 to 48 hours to effectively protect the public. Often those contacted are reluctant to provide information at first, or there are language issues. A worker with a caseload of nearly 200 people will not be able to cope with the many follow-ups and additional calls to make that result from the information received. It is reasonable to assume that the contact tracing that is now being done may be less than fully protective due simply to the overload.
In the past, it has sometimes taken shock therapy to bring DOH around. Some examples would include the 1993 federal Felix vs. Waihee lawsuit that took 12 years to resolve and ended only after DOH and the state Department of Education were found in contempt. Other outside interventions were the 1991 federal lawsuit to remedy unconstitutional conditions in the Hawaii State Hospital; the 2016 lawsuit that compelled the DOH to post care home inspection reports as required by law; and even the 2009 viral video of a Chinatown market overrun with rats that forced a reluctant DOH to send inspectors and clear up the infestation.
There’s no time for a lawsuit to stop the coronavirus in its tracks, and trained contact tracers are waiting to be deployed. The Star-Advertiser has documented both the need for action and DOH’s failure to respond to this need.
Schaefers reported that Lt. Gov. Josh Green “called for (state epidemiologist Sarah) Park to be removed from the job of managing the contact tracing effort in the state.” This is a management issue — simple failure to implement a program that is ready to spring into action. The governor should step in without delay.
Larry Geller is president emeritus of Kokua Council, writing in his individual capacity.