U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who called for the resignations or firings of state Health Director Bruce Anderson and state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park in April and again this week, said on Friday that there are fewer than 10 so-called contact tracers on Oahu and fewer than 20 across the entire state — not the nearly 100 that state Health officials claimed this week are tracking down people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
At a press conference, Gabbard stood by a Health Department whistleblower named Dr. Jennifer Smith, an epidemiological specialist/influenza surveillance and response coordinator, who said she is one of fewer than 10 contact tracers on Oahu who are overwhelmed and unable to do their jobs properly.
In a Wednesday email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo wrote that Oahu had “76 individuals working on contact tracing and investigation. … There are 15 additional contact tracing and case investigation staff who will be working this coming weekend on Oahu. This makes a total of 100 staff working on Oahu to investigate cases this week. Additional staff located on Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii Island investigate cases in those counties for a statewide total of more than 100 staff members focused on the investigation of cases with positive test results.”
Gabbard on Friday called similar claims from the Health Department about its contact tracing staffing “a lie.”
Gabbard said she is working with congressional leaders to conduct oversight over Hawaii’s $50 million in federal funding to improve COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, which Gabbard said appears to have been misspent or gone unused.
She called on Gov. David Ige to:
>> Immediately activate at least 560 contact tracers, with hundreds more on standby should the infection numbers continue to climb. Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Hawaii island emergency room physician, has previously said that Hawaii needs 420 to 564 contact tracers to be on par with national recommendations.
>> Improve Hawaii’s testing capability to test everyone, not just those with COVID-19 symptoms. Without rapid results testing capability, contact tracing efforts will be ineffective, Gabbard said.
>> Regularly test health care workers and not allow those treating COVID-19 patients to also treat non-COVID-19 patients.
>> Provide daily public reports on the number of contact tracers, their caseloads and the average time it takes for them to reach all contacts for each case — something that Gabbard said must be done within 24 hours.
“For the last three months, we have heard wildly different and conflicting information coming from state leaders about how many active contact tracers they employed,” Gabbard said. “… Even as they reported dozens or even over 100 contact tracers were working, in reality, there were around a dozen contact tracers working statewide, overwhelmed and ill-equipped to do their job. … The lies and gross negligence coming from state leaders has resulted in thousands more infected, hundreds hospitalized and an increasing death toll. How many more people need to die before state leaders take necessary action?”
In response, Ige said in a statement to the Star- Advertiser on Friday:
“The Department of Health was able to manage the level of contact tracing when the virus first started to affect Hawaii. As the recent case numbers began to surge on Oahu, the administration recognized the need to increase the Department of Health’s capacity quickly. The recent restructuring of DOH’s disease investigation branch is an important step in addressing the surge, and the department will continue to increase its capacity in the coming weeks.
“We have been working closely with county, state and federal partners in the fight against this pandemic. We appreciate their perspective and ongoing feedback. And we are committed to continuing to work with our partners so that we can protect the health and safety of our residents.”
Dr. Scott Miscovich, the president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaii, who is overseeing COVID testing at many locations, joined Gabbard on Friday and said contact tracing should occur within 24 hours “in an ideal setting.”
“As a state, there was a road map for our Department of Health and it seemed like they purposefully denied every single thing that worked,” Miscovich said. “We are all being lied to. Lives will continue to be lost unless we do something about this. The failure of leadership is why we are here now.”