State scrambles to bring on more contact tracers to handle COVID-19 surge

Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 5:33 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As Hawaii sees a rapid rise in new COVID-19 cases, the state says it’s struggling to keep up with contact tracing.

In a matter of days, and as Hawaii continues to see triple-digit increases in new infections, state officials have gone from saying Hawaii has enough contact tracers to admitting they need more resources.

Bruce Anderson, director of the Department of Health, has said he has 200 contact tracers at his disposal. Lt. Gov. Josh Green, meanwhile, contends that number is much smaller and some tracers have complained to their union the system is overwhelmed.

[Read more: Ige: Hawaii doesn’t have enough contact tracers for COVID-19 surge]

“They need to have 400 minimum. Minimum,” Green said.

“You can’t have 40 or 50 cases assigned to one person. That is not gonna work, especially if they have to go into a community and go person-by-person.”

Over the last three days alone, Hawaii has seen 356 new COVID-19 cases.

[Read more: Hawaii sees another triple-digit jump in new coronavirus infections]

As of Friday, 868 people in the islands remain in isolation with active illness.

Contact tracers are charged with finding and alerting close contacts of someone who has tested positive that they should quarantine and be tested. Health officials say they are essential to reining in the virus because they can prevent those who are exposed to unknowingly infecting others.

Dr. Mark Mugiishi, HMSA’s CEO, is working with the state on crafting a way to re-open the economy. But he said those plans may now be on hold if there aren’t enough contact tracers.

“It’s unfortunate,” Mugiishi said. “You know, obviously, we wish that they had built up this capability during ‘peace’ time when there weren’t that many cases.”

He added, “We are where we are now and I think the main thing we got to do now is get on it.”

Part of the challenge with effective tracing has proven to be reaching those who have tested positive.

Contact tracers have also run into language and cultural barriers as clusters grow in several Pacific Islanders communities.

“We need to deploy an army of contact tracers directly into Kalihi and Makiki where they can go be supportive and help people and make sure they are getting direct, culturally appropriate public health information,” Green said.

“That means the Department of Health needs a lot more than the 77 people they currently have on.”

In addition to those working with the Health Department, the University of Hawaii has 400 contact tracers already trained. Gov. David Ige has also mentioned the possibility of using National Guard Health Care specialists to help.

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