Despite spike in COVID-19 cases, state drags its feet on hiring more contact tracers

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Updated: Aug. 4, 2020 at 5:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly 450 people have gone through a recently-developed contact tracing training program at the University of Hawaii, but just 20 have been hired by the state.

That’s despite concerns that Hawaii doesn’t have enough contact tracers ― the health professionals who reach out to close contacts of COVID-19 patients to let them know they’ve been exposed to the virus and should self-quarantine.

The state worked with the University of Hawaii over the summer to launch the program, recognizing the need for more contact tracers in the islands.

Ilima DeCosta was in a class of about 50 people who completed the six-week program.

She said she entered the program understanding there wasn’t a guarantee she or anyone in her cohort would be hired by the state. But she says she hasn’t even been allowed to apply.

“We thought it was gonna be more competitive, that we would all take the class, but then go out and apply,” said DeCosta, who finished her training program last month.

“I guess maybe there are people who actually thought that because there’s such a need for it, that they would just get the jobs.”

Instead, DeCosta and the majority of UH-trained contact tracers now find themselves in limbo.

After following up with the Health Department to see if she is a candidate, she got an email from the university Tuesday telling her not to contact the DOH directly.

Right now, the state says it has 105 tracers available. That’s far below the 400 that Lt. Gov. Josh Green says are needed.

“The Department of Health has a very small number of full-time people, a really small number, and those people have burned out already,” Green said.

“The contact tracer folks at the state Department of Health, I can only imagine, these guys have been busting their butts ― morning, noon and night for months ― they must be exhausted by now,” said Emergency Physician Dr. Libby Char. “Things are not OK.”

However, the state maintains its contact tracing efforts are sufficient.

“I believe, as does the governor, that we’re in good shape there and we’re gonna be able to continue our activities as we have and follow up in a timely way with all the cases that we are hearing about,” said state Health Director Bruce Anderson.

DeCosta says a number of individuals in her class enrolled in training after losing their jobs in the pandemic and are confused their skills aren’t being utilized.

“I suspect that you folks will probably hear from more of them because they are suffering just like the rest of the community and they reflect the community,” DeCosta said.

“You know, what’s happening to them right now even reflects the community, being told, we don’t need you and just hush up and if we need you, we’ll let you know.”

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