Gov. David Ige said today that Hawaii’s “contact tracing efforts have been better than average and amongst the best in the country.”
Ige’s remarks came during a media briefing this afternoon at the Hawai’i Convention Center where he was joined by Hawaii Emergency Management Agency director Kenneth Hara, and Department of Health director Bruce Anderson and Disease Investigation Branch chief Emily Roberson.
During the briefing state officials shared the latest details on COVID-19 case counts in Hawaii, disease investigation updates and the involvement of the National Guard in contact tracing. Watch the briefing above, or go to Gov. Ige’s Facebook page.
Roberson, who was hired July 16 to lead the Health Department’s Disease Investigation Branch, including its contact tracing program, said there are now 126 contact tracers on the job and another 13 support staff.
Roberson said the department has set up workstations at the convention center, which would allow for additional expansion of the program, but stopped short of confirming a target number.
“I hesitate to put a solid number as a target because we don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow or how things might change ,” Roberson said. “That said, we are in the process of scaling up.”
Ige and and Anderson doubled down on the message that Hawaii residents need to be personally accountable for making healthy choices like wearing masks, socially distancing, practicing good hygiene and avoiding large gatherings.
“What’s going to stop this disease from spreading in Hawaii is not the number of contact tracers, it’s going to be everyone’s behavior,” Anderson said.
He also said contact tracing is only one part of a multi-pronged COVID-19 containment approach and that it isn’t too effective when case counts are soaring. However, he added, effective contact tracing in Hawaii did play a roll in early intervention
When asked why the National Guard didn’t begin augmenting the Health Department’s contact tracing efforts earlier, Hara said they were told it wasn’t required, but continued to make preparations to join the effort so they would be ready when needed.
“We didn’t expect the spike to to be exponentially growing like it did. If you look at the graph, it almost looks like a rocket taking off,” he said. “Yeah you look back hindsight, if we started this earlier, it would have been more beneficial.”
Today’s remarks follow weeks of criticism about the department’s contact tracing program, which has also drawn scrutiny from Washington politicians.
Today, U.S. Rep Anna Eshoo, chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Health, sent Ige a letter expressing concern on Hawaii’s rise in coronavirus cases. She questioned whether the Health Department has stood up an adequate contact tracing and testing program.
She also wanted an accounting of how Hawaii had spent the $50 million in federal coronavirus relief aid that was given to ensure “adequate resources to track, trace and respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Locally, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is a medical doctor, and other health-care providers have pushed for contact tracing improvements too.
Green said national recommendations suggest that Hawaii should have between 420 and 564 contact tracers.
But Anderson downplayed the importance of focusing on a number today saying that when he contacted the CDC he was told that they don’t have a recommendation.
The Hawaii Government Employees Association also has an outstanding grievance that alleges 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. HGEA also alleged employees were overworked, inadequately trained and those sent into the field lacked proper protective equipment.