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Hawaii’s surge in COVID-19 deaths related to shortfall in contact tracing, Lt. Gov. Josh Green says

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Department of Health director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park prepare to speak at a press conference on July 23.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Department of Health director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park prepare to speak at a press conference on July 23.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green says changes are in the works to improve contact tracing and testing inadequacies at the Department of Health that might have contributed to about half of Hawaii’s recent surge in COVID-19 deaths.

Green, who was speaking at a Hawaii CCIM and Pacific Asia Travel Association event, said DOH must immediately expand contact tracers from about 18 statewide to between 420 and 564. He said space at the Hawai‘i Convention Center might be utilized to rapidly expand work stations.

“We’re sitting at 15 (Oahu contact tracers) — let’s be honest that’s a joke and that’s just not going to do it. They got overwhelmed and a whistleblower came forward,” Green said. “I take that very seriously not only because I knew the surge was occurring and the impact on our communities and hospitals, but because it’s just not safe. There are now people on it committed to the mission — there’s nothing like a bit of sunshine on a problem to get that to happen.”

DOH has come under fire in recent weeks for contact tracing shortfalls. Contact tracers are the people hired to locate everyone who comes in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 and ensure that they are informed about their health status, appropriately quarantining or isolating and connected to state health care resources.

A rash of new cases has made the job increasingly difficult. In the first 10 days of August alone, there were 1,433 new COVID-19 cases — that’s 248 more new cases than the 1,205 Hawaii experienced during the entire month of July.

“The sad part is that we will go from 20 fatalities to 60 or 70 fatalities because of the large spread, not all of which was due to the lack of contact tracing and testing, but about half was,” Green said.

Green hasn’t called for the dismissals of DOH director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park; however, he wants someone else to manage the state’s contact tracing and testing programs.

He faulted the pair’s commitment to contact tracing and the testing program, which he said is the only direct way for the state and DOH to limit spread given that “everything else ends up being the subjective will of the people.”

“We did not do well enough. That has to be changed. I’m spending quite a lot of energy making sure we get off our you-know-what and get it done,” he said.

A call to action

Still, the debacle prompted U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to send a tweet to Gov. David Ige Tuesday saying Anderson and 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 to action follows a grievance filed Friday 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.

Ige’s communications director said he was unable to provide a response on Tuesday. DOH did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Grievance filed

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 nonwork hours and participate in last-minute meetings about newly assigned cases.

HGEA’s allegations conflict with comments made by Anderson during an Aug. 3 media briefing and by Park during an Aug. 6 hearing of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19. Both said the state has about 105 active contact 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.

Sen. Sharon Moriwaki (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako­-McCully-Moiliili ) said Tuesday that changes at DOH should reflect a sense of urgency and lead to greater utilization of community contact tracing resources.

Moriwaki said even as cases have surged, she’s heard from community members whose efforts to help the DOH scale up contact tracing were rebuffed. For example, Moriwaki said hundreds of tracers have been certified through a three-hour COVID-19 contact tracing course offered by Hawaii Pacific University, but DOH has said it won’t consider hiring them because of its training agreement with UH.

Moriwaki said health care workers also have told her they offered to volunteer, but were turned away.

“This is a public health crisis, we need all hands on deck,” she said. “There are many with expertise in the community that can and are willing to help to be part of the solution. The UH training program should be just one oppor­tunity.”

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