State to offer funds to community health centers in bid to bolster contact tracing efforts

DOH agrees to provide funding for community health centers to do contact tracing

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - After growing concerns about the state’s overwhelmed contact tracing program, the Health Department is now reaching out to community health centers for help.

The state Health Department said federally-qualified health centers will now be offered federal COVID-19 relief aid to assist with contact tracing in areas where the coronavirus cases are surging.

Dr. Keawe Kaholokula, chair of Native Hawaiian Health at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, said the state should have taken this step far earlier in the pandemic.

“They have failed the citizens of Hawaii and most negatively impacted by this failure is the Pacific Islander communities,” Kaholokula said.

Pacific Islanders, especially Micronesians and Samoans, account for a third of the COVID-19 cases in the state even though they make up a fraction of the population.

As cases surge, community leaders have been pleading for help from DOH.

“It’s a crisis and the best way to work, is to work with the people,” said Jocelyn Howard, director of We Are Oceania.

Howard said infected patients have waited days for DOH to reach out, putting other members of the household at risk. She ended up working with the families.

Even without DOH assistance, Kalihi-Palama Health Center, Kokua Kalihi Valley Medical Clinic, Waimanalo Health Center and Waianae Coast Comprehensive Medical Center all started doing contact tracing on their own months ago.

“Our community health workers are linguistically, culturally and technically competent to do these works,” said Kaholokula.

Sheri Daniels, executive director of Papa Ola Lokahi, said being in the area gives them a jump start.

“They know what works and what doesn’t work,” she said.

Health Department officials said the Convention Center now has 50 contact tracers, with 50 more expected by Friday — plus 23 National Guard members.

DOH also said they finally hired those trained through a University of Hawaii program: 20 so far and 20 more by the end of the week. That includes full and part-time, paid positions, along with some volunteers.

Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center did already receive some CARES Act money for their efforts, but could use more.

Waianae Coast Comp. Health Center care kit
Waianae Coast Comp. Health Center care kit (Source: Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center)

“We know our patients, so a stranger reaching out versus somebody that maybe went through three pregnancies with you, or helped your dad when he had a heart attack,” said Patricia McKenzie, director of clinical operations at WCCHC.

The health center provides patients with care kits that include thermometers and masks.

If someone in isolation reports that they need groceries or diapers, staff from the medical center will shop for them delivering the items needed.

The other community clinics hope to expand their reach too if DOH follows through providing CARES Act money and help with training.

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