The state Department of Health is paying a marketing firm, using federal coronavirus pandemic funds, for market research and media consulting for COVID-19 communications aimed at hard-to-reach groups. That has drawn justifiable criticism, including from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who called it “unwise to use precious relief dollars for polling and focus groups.” There’s so much need instead to spend funds to boost public health directly, he said.
What state leaders should be doing wouldn’t cost a dime: Giving the public some straight talk about Hawaii’s efforts to regain control over the surge in coronavirus cases.
That job lands on Gov. David Ige’s desk. He needs to step up, right now, and speak in far greater detail about what’s being done, and to clarify conflicting crucial information.
In particular, information on contact tracing, the laborious task of outreach to those exposed to an infected person, has been left in a fog. This shouldn’t be a mystery.
Last week, Health Director Bruce Anderson and Dr. Sarah Park, state epidemiologist, were citing 105 active tracers on the job, with plans to add more.
On the contrary, however: The Hawaii Government Employees Association said in a grievance filed with DOH Aug. 6 that the union knows of only 15 tracers on Oahu and three on the neighbor islands; these workers are in the DOH disease investigation, immunization and harm reduction branches.
After days of multiple queries from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the department on Wednesday said that day’s Oahu crew comprised 76 people working on tracing and investigation.
Nine more support staff provide “supervision, staffing logistics, data entry, validation, admin support, lab and IT data coding and analysis,” said Janice Okubo, DOH spokeswoman. She added that 15 additional contact tracing and case investigation staff will come on this weekend, which will make 100 in all.
It should not be this hard to dig for basic information; even now, much more clarity on the timetable is needed.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, speaking Wednesday on the Star-Advertiser’s webcast series “Spotlight Hawaii,” said that a ramp-up to about 200 tracers is underway.
He acknowledged that even this is not enough — a rational conclusion, especially considering that two additional pressure points, the reopening of some schools and the enabling of quarantine waivers for trans-Pacific visitors who get tested, lie just around the corner. He was encouraged by plans for a full-time tracing center and, with good reason, favored a way to enlist more volunteers.
Green, who is also a physician, said that the surge in cases, past 200 on multiple days, likely happened because of increased social gathering, and because the population, after sheltering at home, had little immunity. He offered some alarming forecasts about the next week, if the daily infection count persists at the current 150-200 range.
The start of public schools next week — albeit largely via distance learning — also has shaken confidence in the state’s grasp on the coronavirus situation, and in its ability to manage public safety. With staff and faculty already back at work, the teachers union this week said it felt compelled to alert the public about roughly a dozen COVID-19 cases at a handful of campuses, after the departments of Education and Health did not do so.
Top state officials were happy to talk, with charts and graphs, when things were going better and the virus was suppressed. Now that Hawaii is scrambling to regain its footing, the information has come in fits and starts. Not surprisingly, people could well lose trust in government’s ability to protect the public.
When the state is struggling through a pandemic is exactly the moment when that trust becomes crucial to saving lives. That is what’s at stake.