Schatz: DOH’s missteps in containing COVID-19 aren’t because of a lack of resources

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Updated: Aug. 17, 2020 at 5:48 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - More elected officials are calling on the state Health Department to stop resisting offers of money and people for its overwhelmed contact tracing program.

In an interview Monday, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz told Hawaii News Now his staff cannot figure out whether $50 million in federal coronavirus relief aid that went to DOH has even been spent.

The money was supposed to bolster the state’s contact tracing program. But today, Hawaii’s contact tracing efforts are overwhelmed — as the virus spreads rapidly in the community.

“This is not a question of resources, this is a question of emphasis,” Schatz said, “It’s clear to me the Department of Health doesn’t really have their heart in contact tracing and that has to change.”

In addition to the $50 million, the city offered even more.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said that was declined by the Health Department.

The agency told Hawaii News Now that they turned down the money because they were unsure about the rules of the federally-funded CARES Act and didn’t know if transferring money between jurisdictions was allowed. Schatz said it is, as long as the funds are used to fight COVID-19.

Earlier this month, state senators and HNN exposed just how overwhelmed the contact tracing arm at the Health Department is. DOH claimed it had more than 100 contact tracers but a shortage of investigators created a huge backlog.

HNN has also learned that hundreds of potential tracers, trained through the University of Hawaii program, are still waiting to be hired.

“I have received emails over the past week from some of the participants in that program explaining that they want to be called, but haven’t been called yet to start contact tracing,” said state Rep. Scott Saiki.

Health experts told state lawmakers that should have been done as soon as training was complete, and could have prevented the surge.

Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of HMSA, said contact tracers are essential in the early stages, before the virus gets out of hand.

“If you think of it like a fire, once the fire is raging and the whole forest is burning it’s really hard to do anything but go in with helicopters and shoot water on the whole forest, but if there are small smolders, you can go and get them,” he said.

State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park was removed from managing the contact tracing program last week.

A spokesperson for the DOH said in a statement late Monday afternoon that they are now willing to accept the City and County of Honolulu’s offer, “If the County were to offer funding that can be legally used by the State for personnel, DOH will accept it.  At this time, we are not aware of a written offer of funding from the County.”

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