HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Health Department whistleblower who helped to expose the agency’s failed efforts to conduct contact tracing for COVID-19 cases said she experienced panic attacks as she struggled to respond to the growing number of cases she was tasked with.
Dr. Jennifer Smith, an epidemiologist, is one of nine investigators at the Department of Health. She spoke publicly for the first Friday at a news conference called by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
Smith said investigators at the Health Department are “struggling to keep up.”
Hawaii News Now has learned that all new COVID-19 cases must go through just nine disease investigators — like Smith — and they must contact every person who has been confirmed positive.
Last week, an unannounced visit to the state Health Department by state senators revealed an agency overwhelmed by a surging number of cases and unable to follow up with all those infected.
The lawmakers spoke to investigators who were handling up to 200 cases each.
“I sat there on a Tuesday, I had 22 cases in my queue. Then on Wednesday afternoon, I was up to 47 and Thursday as I watch the numbers tick 56, 57, 58, 59 I got so overwhelmed and panicked,” Smith said.
“I had a panic attack. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know what to do."
Smith said the investigators are not full-time contact tracers. They have other duties and so many can’t handle more than three new cases a day.
Contact tracing is considered vital to reining in the spread of coronavirus. Contact tracers reach out to people who may have been exposed to a positive case, letting them know they should get tested.
As coronavirus clusters spread, Smith says her efforts to sound the alarm fell on deaf ears.
"I asked multiple times to have the director come meet with us and have still yet to meet Dr. Bruce Anderson," said Smith.
At the news conference, Gabbard renewed calls for Anderson’s removal. She also said state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park should step down.
“They have failed. To top it off, they have lied to the people of Hawaii all along saying don’t worry we have it under control,” she said.
“The numbers that have been reported specifically by Bruce Anderson and Sarah Park are false and the fact that they change almost on a week by week basis and even differ between Bruce Anderson and Sarah Park points to the dishonesty and lack of integrity in leadership of the Department of Health."
When Hawaii News Now went along with the senators last week, Park said there were other contact tracers who were working remotely.
But Smith says the tracers are not allowed to work from home.
Anderson and Park were noticeably absent from a news conference with the governor on Thursday.
Instead, deputy Health Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu spoke for the department, saying more resources were being added and internal changes are being made to improve efficiency, capacity, reach and effectiveness.
In a statement Friday, Gov. David Ige said the “recent restructuring of DOH’s disease investigation branch is an important step in addressing the surge, and the department will continue to increase its capacity in the coming weeks.”