Mayor says state needs to dramatically dial up testing, contact tracing to safely reopen

Updated: May. 8, 2020 at 3:45 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Mayor Kirk Caldwell is calling on the Health Department to dramatically dial up COVID-19 testing and contact tracing to prevent a surge of cases as Hawaii reopens.

He said as more businesses are allowed to open their doors and activities given the green light to resume, officials need to ensure that any new infections are caught early — before others get sick.

He wants to make testing available to symptomatic and asymptomatic people across a wide number of categories, including:

  • Close contacts of those who get sick and their close contacts
  • First responders
  • Health care workers
  • All those who work with vulnerable communities, including in nursing homes
  • Those who live in “crowded, multi-generational” public housing projects
  • All tourism industry employees who come into close contact with visitors

At a news conference Friday, the mayor said he’s getting pushback from the state Health Department to the city’s proposals to significantly increase COVID-19 testing.

The Health Department previously threw a wrench in the city’s plans to increase testing on its own — going through a third party provider to purchase 10,000 testing kits. Health officials raised concerns about the validity of the tests that would be used and the company that would do them.

DOH Director Bruce Anderson said he supports “a more strategic” testing program.

“Random, broad-based testing and testing everyone is not going to be effective in getting the information we need to make public health decisions,” he said.

Caldwell also wants to ensure an army of at least 300 contact tracers are available to track any new infections. DOH has said it has far fewer than that — but enough to handle the need currently.

The mayor’s statements come exactly a week before Oahu retailers and shopping malls will be allowed to reopen. On Friday, Hawaii reported no new COVID-19 cases for the first time in eight weeks. But the mayor — and Health Department — warned residents not to assume that the threat of the virus is gone.

“We know as we open up our community ... there is going to be spread of the virus,” he said. “We need to be ready for when that occurs.”

To bolster his case, Caldwell pointed to a letter to Gov. David Ige this week from scores of Hawaii healthcare professionals with a similar message about testing and contact tracing.

[To read the full letter, click here.]

In the letter, the group called for “widespread targeted testing,” rapid contact tracing, a voluntary isolation and quarantine program, special plans for high-density housing, and more resources for public health.

“If we don’t take these recommendations ... we’re going to take risks and endanger the public health and safety of the residents of Oahu,” Caldwell said. “We are asking the Department of Health leadership to take strong and decisive action to come into alignment” with the program the health professionals suggest.

This story will be updated.

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