Rep. Gabbard and Whistleblower Call For Immediate Action in Hawai‘i Contact Tracing
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US Representative Tulsi Gabbard was joined by three medical experts, including a Department of Health employee whistleblower, criticizing the Hawai’i Department of Health leadership and contact tracing efforts.
State leaders have assured the public that sufficient contact tracing staff were in place; however, the whistleblower said the states contact tracers are “extremely overwhelmed” and unable to conduct contact tracing for many of the positive cases in the state.
Rep. Gabbard is calling for a change in state leadership, and an immediate expansion of contact tracing and testing capacity. The congresswoman also announced that she is working with congressional leaders to conduct oversight over the state’s COVID-19 response. This will help to determine how $50 million in federal funding awarded to the state to improve testing and contact tracing is being spent.
On Thursday, Governor David Ige highlighted some of the clusters the State has been seeing and the efforts to enhance Hawai‘i’s contact tracing capacity. He also publicly announced a new Disease Investigation Branch Chief, Dr. Emily Roberson, who he said would take over contact tracing at the state Department of Health.
Department leaders outlined changes to the contact tracing program that Dr. Roberson is helping oversee, which includes automating processes to reduce workload for contact tracers, standing up a call center with support from outside agencies to help with case management, and building in real-time monitoring and rapid-cycle evaluation of procedures and messaging.
Rep. Gabbard was joined at Friday’s press conference by Dr. Jennifer Smith, an Epidemiological Specialist/Influenza Surveillance and Response Coordinator in the Hawaiʻi Department of Health’s Disease Investigation Branch, with an expertise in virology and pandemics. She is among the case investigators on the island of Oʻahu who is conducting contact tracing.
“Today we find ourselves greatly under-funded, under-resourced, and unable to serve the State of Hawaiʻi at the level that is necessary to respond appropriately to the spread of the virus. The few contact tracers that are working right now have been struggling to keep up, struggling to serve our communities, and struggling to keep people safe during this pandemic. We’re doing the best we have with what we have, but with more, we could do so much more. I am sounding the alarm now, asking for help,” said Dr. Jennifer Smith. “The bottom line: we don’t have enough, and we need more. Someone needs to speak up. Someone needs to say something. We need a change. We need a more effective plan to handle the situation.”
“For the last three months, we have heard wildly different and conflicting information coming from state leaders about how many active contact tracers they employed,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
On Thursday, officials with the state Department of Health reported there were 76 individuals working on contact tracing and investigations and nine additional staff providing supervision and other support. The department also noted that 15 additional contact tracers and case investigation staff were working this week on O‘ahu to investigate cases and 21 additional personnel from the Hawai‘i National Guard were providing assistance on O‘ahu.
But Rep. Gabbard said, “even as they reported dozens or even over 100 contact tracers were working, in reality, there were around a dozen contact tracers working statewide, overwhelmed and ill-equipped to do their job.”
“The people of Hawai‘i deserve the truth, and leaders who will fight for them and defeat this virus. I am working with Congressional leaders to ensure Federal oversight and accountability occurs over how taxpayer dollars are being used,” she said.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Dr. Smith were joined by two specialists, Dr. DeWolfe Miller, an expert infectious disease epidemiologist, and Dr. Scott Miscovich, a physician and the president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaiʻi, who is running COVID testing sites across the state. Dr. DeWolfe Miller and Dr. Scott Miscovich spoke to the importance of contact tracing and testing in stopping COVID-19, and criticized the state’s approach.
“Contact tracing is a technique that has been around for decades. It’s what we used to eradicate smallpox. We need a full court press. We need every contact tracer we can get our hands on recruited and put in place to help stop this epidemic,” said Dr. DeWolfe Miller. “Testing people only with symptoms, which has been the approach here, is bound to fail. This disease has spread under our noses because we haven’t been testing enough.”
“Contact tracing should occur within 24 hours in an ideal setting. If you test positive, you should know immediately and should be put in quarantine. The roadmap was there from many successful countries,” said Dr. Scott Miscovich.
During the press conference, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard spoke to over $50 million in federal resources that were made available to Hawai‘i for testing and tracing. She also called on Governor Ige to restore trust in the Department of Health and fix the contact tracing operation by:
- Immediately activate at least 560 contact tracers, with hundreds more on standby should the infection numbers continue to climb.
- Improve Hawai‘i’s testing capability so that everyone can be tested, not just symptomatic individuals.
- Medical staff and healthcare workers must be regularly tested, and those treating COVID patients must be dedicated to that task alone, and not be permitted to serve non-COVID patients.
- Provide daily public reports on the total number of active contact tracers, their individual caseload, and the average time it takes for them to reach all contacts for each case — something that must be done within 24 hours.
Meantime, officials with the state Department of Health outlined further statistics and actions being taken by the department to better prepare the contract tracing division. The department reports that 20 new contact tracers are being onboarded from the UH training program, with another 20 to begin the onboarding process next week.