HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The union that represents state contact tracers has filed an official grievance against Health Department management, saying top government health officials have lied to the public how many tracers are actually on the job.
The Hawaii Government Employees Association also says those actually on the job are overwhelmed.
HGEA’s claims align with what a state Senate COVID-19 investigative committee witnessed last week during a visit to the department, during which they spoke to multiple investigators who reported handling upwards of 130 coronavirus cases each and struggling to keep up.
The union complaint comes as state Health Department leadership faces growing scrutiny of its handling of a surge in COVID-19 cases on Oahu.
One central area of concern: Why didn’t the Health Department prepare for an increase in infections when Hawaii was seeing new infections in the single digits?
Chief epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park recently told Hawaii News Now that funding is an issue when hiring contact tracers. That’s despite the Health Department getting $50 million in federal relief aid.
“Everyone is like ‘Oh you got $50 million,’ but they forget, it’s not just about contact tracing,” Park told HNN on Friday. “It’s the whole piece of infection control that we have to increase the capacity in our state, our entire state.”
On Monday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell expressed growing frustration with the situation and noted that he offered the state a portion of the city’s CARES Act money expressly for more contact tracers.
“That offer was made to the director of the Department of Health (Dr. Bruce Anderson) to assist and we were told ‘No need, they got it covered, they have enough contact tracers,‘” Caldwell said.
But the senators’ visit to the Health Department ― and the rapid spread of COVID-19 on Oahu ― tell another story. Contact tracers are considered a central part in the pandemic’s response because they alert people who have been exposed to the virus that they should get tested and quarantine.
The state has acknowledged that contact tracers are not researching all cases.
And HGEA paints an even more dire picture.
They say staff are being forced to work six-day weeks, without overtime, and are taking medical swabs in the field without training or adequate protection.
The problems at the Health Department have spurred some to call for a change in leadership.
“It’s ultimately gonna be the governor’s decision of course who runs these programs, but we have to have a change in direction to get this straight,” Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Monday.
“Otherwise, I’m telling you, it’s out of control. we have 2,020 active cases right now and there’s no way that small team can even begin to trace those cases.”
It wasn’t immediately known if Green and the governor have discussed a change in leadership.
In a statement Monday, Gov. David Ige said:
“I am in ongoing discussions with DOH leadership on ways to improve our testing and contact tracing systems and capacity. And we are confident that plans and resources are being put in place to meet the needs of our community.”
Hawaii News Now reached out to the Health Department with specific questions and a request for an interview with department managers.
The agency responded that due to the extreme workload and its response to the pandemic, leadership can only respond to media questions during regularly scheduled news conferences.