A group that advocates for senior citizens has begun legal action to increase the number of contact tracers in Hawaii and to require the Department of Health to provide translation services.
The Kokua Council for Senior Citizens sent a demand letter Wednesday to the state Department of Health director Bruce Anderson threatening further legal action if he doesn’t furnish information that the state’s contract tracing program is meeting its legal obligations by 10 a.m. Tuesday.
The letter, penned by attorney Lance Collins, says “the state has a legal obligation to provide contact tracing and relevant health information in minority languages to limited English-proficient individuals at the levels established by statute. From the available information to Kokua Council, the state has failed to act contrary to its legal obligation to do so.”
Gov.David Ige and state Attorney General Clare Connors were copied on the demand letter, which was set to Anderson, who is retiring on Sept. 15. Dr. Libby Char, an emergency room physician, takes over Sept. 16 as interim DOH director.
Collins’s legal demand asks DOH to publicly state its plan to become compliant with the law: including how many contact tracers are currently employed, how many will be hired and when they will be hired as well as how many bilingual contact tracers or interpreters are currently employed as well as will be hired and when they will be hired.
Collins’ letter says if DOH doesn’t meet the Tuesday deadline that Kokua Council “will pursue legal action to obtain its remedies.”
Kokua Council said about four years ago it successfully sued the DOH because the department was not posting inspection reports of state-licensed care facilities online as had been required by a 2013 law.
This time around Kokua Council is alleging that DOH has failed to ensure that there are sufficient contact tracers or interpreters to communicate in other languages with cases and close contacts who have limited English proficiency.
“This is particularly alarming because it appears that immigrant communities with significantly higher numbers of limited English proficient individuals from throughout the Pacific and Asia have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infections,” Collins said.
Pacific Islanders only make up 4% of the state’s population of the state, but on Aug. 28, the most recent report available, they represented 31% of Hawaii’s coronavirus cases. The race with the next highest COVID-19 counts in Hawaii was Filipino, which represented 18% of the cases.
Collins added a “lack of information regarding what to do when one is infected has a high likelihood of significantly increasing the risk of further community spread of COVID-19.”
In the letter, Collins says Hawaii’s contact tracing effort is well below the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO)’s Contact Tracing Workforce Estimator’s population-based recommendation that suggests Hawaii should have 420 contact tracers during the COVID-19emergency and 210 contact tracers during ordinary non-emergency times.
DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said Wednesday that the state now has 212 contact tracers and “additional contact tracers are being employed with support from the City and County of Honolulu.”
She was not immediately able to provide today the count of interpreters and bi-lingual contact tracers and community health people that DOH has made available to those with limited English-speaking capabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.