Governor outlines efforts to bolster contact tracing, defends state’s response to surge

Published: Aug. 19, 2020 at 5:46 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 19, 2020 at 5:49 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In response to a surge in coronavirus cases, as well as cramped conditions at the Department of Health, the state is working to expand its contact tracing efforts.

On Wednesday, media was given a tour of two rooms set up at the Hawaii Convention Center that will be able to house up to 100 new tracers.

Despite the state being in the middle of an outbreak with another day of a triple-digit rise in cases, Gov. David Ige maintains his administration has a sufficient plan in place to beat back the virus.

“We do believe that we have the resources and as you can see, we do have the space now to bring on additional contact tracers within an environment that allows us to provide them training and support as we have the staff,” Ige said Wednesday, in a news conference.

The move to the Convention Center is similar to the staffing up effort at the Department of Labor earlier this year. Employees and volunteers moved to the convention center to grapple with a mountain of claims.

The additions to the state’s contact tracer programs also comes two weeks after state senators found Department of Health investigators swamped with cases, some handling nearly 200 each.

The state says investigator duties are now shared by other employees and cases are being prioritized based on risk of spread or vulnerability of the patient.

“The goal is to contact everybody but the prioritization is there,” said Dr. Emily Roberson, DOH Disease Investigation branch chief.

“We are ramping up just to make sure that we are directing all of our efforts in the way that is most likely to prevent these population level outcomes like outbreaks and clusters from occurring.”

Even as the state ramps up its efforts dramatically, Health Director Bruce Anderson said Wednesday that contact tracing is only one aspect of stopping the spread.

“I hate to think that we are getting so caught up on a number that we are losing track of the fact that what’s gonna stop this disease from spreading in Hawaii is not the number of contact tracers,” Anderson said.

“It’s gonna be everyone’s behavior in keeping to themselves and not spreading the disease to others and not putting themselves in a situation where they are gonna be exposed to others who are infected.”

Although the Health Department claims the investigator workload has been adjusted, officials could not say how many cases they’re currently handling.

When asked Wednesday, the state also could not say how long it is currently taking for a contact tracer to reach out to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

The standard the state set for itself: 24 to 48 hours.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been one of the most vocal critics of the Health Department’s response to Oahu’s COVID-19 surge, saying that the state should have used a lull in cases in April and June to prepare for the spike it’s grappling to respond to now.

Gabbard said Hawaii should have more than 1,200 contact tracers available to handle its active cases. With the ramp-up, the figure is now about 130.

“The crisis we face today is a direct result of our state’s failed leadership,” Gabbard said on Wednesday.

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