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Lawmaker concerned crucial COVID-19 data is not tracked

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House Speaker Scott Saiki worries that Health Department officials have not been cataloging specific data on COVID-19 infections that could help identify sources of the spread and lead to more targeted efforts to control the pandemic.

Saiki, who co-chairs the House Select Committee on COVID-19, has been asking health officials for data on infected people to help identify activities they were involved in so others can know if they may have been exposed — as well as pinpoint sources of the spread.

“My fear is that the Health Department has not been collecting this data over the last five months and that’s why they could not respond to this request,” Saiki told members of the committee on Monday.

In his latest request for information on Aug. 19, Saiki said he asked for specific information on ages, dates and locations of potential transmissions of COVID-19, whether an infected person wore a mask or not and whether they had symptoms or not at the time.

Instead, on Friday, Saiki said, health officials sent him a reply, “which is basically non responsive to my request.”

There was no specific information and the Health Department said it did not have data on whether infected people were wearing masks while they may have exposed others, sent Saiki a graphic that provided little information, and referred him to a web site that did not answer his questions.

“This is important because we need to know where the clusters are forming, what kind of activity is leading to the clusters,” Saiki said. “But the Health Department does not have this information.”

Saiki’s comments came on the same day that Gov. David Ige announced the retirement of beleaguered Health Director Bruce Anderson, who has been under fire for his department’s response as COVID-19 infections have seen a resurgence in numbers far greater than during the original outbreak, which began in February.

In an email to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Health spokeswoman Janice Okubo wrote:

“Despite the tremendous amount of contact tracing being conducted, there is a large amount of information that cannot be gleaned from people who report that they do not know how they contracted the disease. This is one of the limitations of contact tracing (i.e., the people problem or variable) and the danger of placing too much emphasis on contact tracing when there are widespread community infections, because in many cases, the data is impossible to derive. Because so much information is often not discernible through contact tracing during widespread community spread, there is concern that decision-­making based only on the limited discernible information may be misleading and potentially harmful.

“Nonetheless, the Hawaii Department of Health recognizes that transparency and accountability are critical for sustaining trust and confidence in our actions. DOH is working on ways to improve how information on cases and clusters is shared while ensuring accuracy and protecting individual privacy. To this end, we will be posting a new webpage with more detailed metrics and data on cases in the next few days. DOH also is committed to working with the legislature to share relevant information in a timely and accurate way to meet its needs.”

Saiki said he plans to continue to press health officials “to see how we can secure the information that we’re requesting.”

The members of the committee expanded on Monday as co-chairman Peter Ho — chairman and CEO of Bank of Hawaii — echoed comments about the long slog ahead for Hawaii’s people and its economy with no clear end in sight.

“I hate to say it but we won’t be pau with all of this by year end,” Ho said. “It’s likely to extend on for a good amount of time. We’re just going to have to determine whether we have the resilience, the relentlessness, to see it through for our community and for the behalf of our community.”

For now physicians and nurses at the Queen’s Health Systems hospitals “are very tired” and working double shifts as they brace for even more cases as so-called “surge testing” continues across Oahu, said Jill Hoggard Green, CEO of the Queen’s Health System, who just joined the committee.

So far Queen’s has treated 321 COVID-19 patients, whom Hoggard Green called “some of the sickest patients that have the greatest need.”

Fourteen patients were in intensive care on Monday and 99 others were “teetering” between whether they would join them in ICU units or possibly get better enough for possible discharge, Hoggard Green said.

With surge testing underway, she said, “I expect that number to even be higher because we’re going to find the individuals that we could be putting into quarantine and individuals that actually do need in-patient care that we don’t presently see. … It is still a critical time.”

Hoggard Green said that she hopes Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s latest restrictions “will help us change the curve.”

In the meantime, Queen’s doctors and nurses are hoping for reinforcements, especially nurses, Hoggard Green said.

In March, Queen’s dedicated an intensive care unit and medical unit for COVID-19 cases. Today there are six full-time COVID-19 units and a special one for infectious diseases that’s under construction and is scheduled to be finished by the end of September — “and not a moment too soon,” Hoggard Green said.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams visited Queen’s and other hospitals on Wednesday and said, “Whatever you need, let us know,” Hoggard Green said.

Hoggard Green, who worked 40 years as a nurse, said she asked Adams for 10,000 N95 model “1860” masks that are smaller and fit women better, along with 75 cases of COVID-19 medications.

The masks, in particular, “are a critical need for us,” she said.

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