During unannounced visit, senators find a health department overwhelmed by COVID-19 surge

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Updated: Aug. 7, 2020 at 6:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Fed up with a perceived lack of information about the state’s response to COVID-19, lawmakers on Friday made an unannounced visit to the Health Department and found contact tracers ― on the front lines of containing the virus ― overwhelmed and overworked.

One of the investigators that senators spoke to was responsible for tracking nearly 200 cases.

The lawmakers, who serve on the state Senate’s COVID-19 task force, have grown increasingly frustrated about how the state Health Department is handling the pandemic ― and a worsening surge in cases. They’ve also pleaded with the agency to bring on more contact tracers, something the department has long maintained they didn’t need to do because they had enough.

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

[Read more: State scrambles to bring on more contact tracers to handle COVID-19 surge]

But senators found a dramatically different picture during their visit to Kinau Hale.

They invited HNN along as they were taken to state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park’s office. State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim pressed Kim to take the group of senators to speak to case investigators and contact tracers, who play a crucial role in fighting the spread of COVID-19 by letting close contacts know when they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus.

Here’s one jaw-dropping exchange Kim had with an investigator handling 131 COVID-19 cases. She acknowledged that there was no way to appropriately contact trace with such a large caseload:

Kim: 131 cases, how are you able to track all of them?

Investigator: I’m not.

Kim: And what about your supervisor, do they know you have this many cases?

Investigator: I’m pretty sure we all do.

Kim: But we asked them and they said they don’t know.

Investigator: I asked this morning and we’re basically prioritizing those over 65 (years old) because they are the high risk cases, so then there needs to be a way for us to sort that out who are actually the ones over 65.

Kim: And what about the ones who aren’t over 65?

Investigator: I got a call from someone yesterday saying it was day 10 and no one ever contacted them and I was like ‘oh well he made it through I guess.'

A few cubicles away, the senators spoke with another investigator handling nearly 200 cases.

Investigator: Well, right now, I have 192.

Kim: What? 192?

Investigator: But I haven’t had a chance to go back and close cases that are probably already past their release date.

State Sen. Michelle Kidani: Are you guys able to get to them (cases) quickly?

Investigator: We have only seven for today, so I think we’ve already gone through most of them with the public health nurses, so I think that we’ve done that. But some days I get 20 or 30 and I can’t get through 30 in one day.

Kidani: So how long before you get to them? Three or four days?

Investigator: Yeah, whenever. It’s just whenever the nurses get through that list and it depends on how many contacts they have right because one cases equals at least one or more contacts.

After being led through a series of cluttered offices, the senators were then take to a room of five National Guard members doing actual contact tracing, which is far below the 105 tracers the state says it has on staff. Park says the majority of her employees are working from home or other locations.

She also said she’s pleased the senators stopped by and she didn’t dispute she’s understaffed for the critical task. “I’m really glad and honestly, I hope what they see, they realize that we need more in terms of staffing, resources, space, equipment,” Park said. “We’ve been supporting ourselves through federal grants and as I said to the committee yesterday, they come with a lot of strings.”

But state Sen. Sharon Moriwaki contends finances aren’t the root of the problem.

“Funding is not the issue,” Moriwaki said. “I think it’s the organization. It’s having the wherewithal and the urgency of saying ‘How do we do it?’ and just doing it.”

Although the Health Department says it has access to nearly 450 contact tracers trained through a University of Hawaii program, Park contends bringing them on is not that easy.

“You cannot just take someone because they have clinical background or epi background,” Park said.

“They have to be trained on what we do. If you’ve never done what we do, you can’t just start day one, you are gonna cause more problems than help.”

Kim agrees the onboarding process can be challenging. However, she feels the DOH has had ample time to mobilize. “Yeah, it’s not easy to bring on 200 people immediately, but it’s been since April and then June, when they had the cases,” Kim said. “You would think that we would be getting into it.”

The Health Department said they plan to activate roughly 40 more tracers by next week and there is some discussion of using workspaces at the Hawaii Convention Center.

Late Friday, after Hawaii News Now aired this story exclusively, Lt. Gov. Josh Green called for changes at the Department of Health.

“All I heard was excuses tonight from Dr. Park as she finished her interview,” said Green, a practicing physician. “It’s not acceptable because there are people that are sick, there are people that are afraid, there are people that are in the hospital in critical condition. It’s our job as the state to trace all of those cases and prevent extra illness.”

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