When it comes to reopening Hawaii’s economy, there’s little argument Hawaii’s ability to conduct contact tracing is key.

It’s one of the four pillars – along with screening, testing and isolating – that officials have identified as a prerequisite to lifting stay-at-home orders and eventually opening Hawaii’s economy.

But now there’s a growing dispute over whether the state has enough people to do the tracing.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who is leading the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, said he would ask Gov. David Ige to order the Department of Health to accept help. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Bruce Anderson, the director of the Hawaii Department of Health, says the department currently has about 50 staff and 30 volunteers conducting contact tracing — enough, he said, given the relatively low number of active cases in Hawaii.

“I’m comfortable they can handle the volume of cases today,” Anderson said. “We are training and have recruited volunteers to help with surge capacity. I’m comfortable with existing staff, at least in the near term.”

The state official leading the recovery, meanwhile, said he’s going to ask Gov. David Ige to intervene and accept help that’s being offered to boost the department’s ranks.

During the weekly meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the official in charge of the state’s response, said he would ask the governor to order the health department to accept help from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which Hara heads.

Hara wasn’t the only one pointing out that there are hundreds if not thousands of people available to get training and help, including people with health care experience.

Dr. Mark Mugiishi, the chief executive of Hawaii Medical Service Association who is on the House Select Committee, said the head of the University of Hawaii’s nursing school had offered several hundred nursing students to help.

Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said there are thousands of out-of-work health care workers with at least some medical training who could be hired to help.

“We just have to take it to the Department of Health to see if they’ll accept the help,” Mugiishi said.

In a news conference following the House meeting, Ige downplayed any tensions between Hara’s agency and the health department. He said health officials were not “pushing back.”

“I think it’s a misunderstanding. It’s not pushing back as much as the acknowledgment that we do have the personnel we need to handle the current case count,” Ige said. “General Hara has been very active in planning for the worst case scenario.”

Fast contact tracing is important because it can help officials quickly isolate cases and prevent community spread of the disease.

When asked about how many contact tracers Hawaii needs, Mugiishi quoted a figure cited by the National Association of County and City Health Officials in a report titled, “Building COVID-19 Contact Tracing Capacity in Health Departments to Support Reopening American Society Safely.”

The report says opening up safely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic requires about 30 professionals per 100,000 population. These include “epidemiologists, disease investigation specialists, public health nurses, community health workers, and others typically involved in contact tracing activities,” the association said.

In non-emergency situations, departments need about 15 professionals per 100,000 population, the association says.

Based on the emergency situation, that would mean the state of Hawaii needs about 420 contact tracers for the resident population alone.

Critical For The Return Of Tourism

Add tourists – which swelled the population by about 250,000 per day earlier this year – and that could mean dozens more.

It’s unclear how many people DOH has working on contact tracing.

Last month, health department officials said DOH had 44 employees working directly on contact tracing, including five unpaid volunteers.

On Monday, Myra Ching-Lee, a spokeswomen with the Hawaii COVID-19 Joint Information Center, said that number was out of date but could not provide the current number.

Director Dept of Health Dr Bruce Anderson at Governor Ige’s press conference on April 8, 2020.
Bruce Anderson, director of the Hawaii Department of Health, said the state has plenty of staff needed to conduct contact tracing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The near-80 personnel Anderson referenced could include other staff from Department of Health divisions and other volunteers, such as state public health nurses and some students from the University of Hawaii.

Anderson said the department is evaluating staffing needs and will look at recruiting more employees as well as volunteers.

“We are going to have new staff, new epidemiology specialists who can do contact tracing,” he said. “That’s fundamental to do contact tracing going forward.”

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