U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz on Wednesday announced Hawaii will receive $50 million in new federal funding to expand COVID-19 contact tracing and testing, bringing the total to $70 million.

But he also expressed worry that state officials are not moving fast enough to use the money for tracing, even as the reopening of the state depends on it.

“I encourage state leaders to move at the speed of the virus and establish a contact tracing program that is fully operational as soon as possible,” the Democrat, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a press release. “There’s simply not any time left, but there is plenty of money to get this done.”

Reached by phone, Schatz reiterated the urgency.

Senator Brian Schatz in Honolulu Civil Beat office. 31 may 2017
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in Civil Beat’s office in 2017. He is concerned that the Ige administration is not responding fast enough in using federal funds to beef up contact tracing of COVID-19 patients. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I am worried that we are not moving fast enough and I am worried that we are getting caught up in interagency squabbles and missing the urgency of the moment,” he said, referring to members of Gov. David Ige’s administration. “We’ve done extraordinarily well with the suppression of the virus, but if we are going to take the next steps toward a partial reopening of the economy, we need the public health infrastructure that is up to the task — and that means we need an army of contact tracers.”

By Schatz’s count, that means 400 to 500 people.

“And we need to hire them now,” he said.

Schatz is the latest top Hawaii leader to express concern that Ige is not moving fast enough to put in place the capabilities the state will need to closely monitor any resurgence that comes with removing restrictions on business and the public. In the last week or so, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and even members of Ige’s own administration have urged the governor to expand testing and tracing.

At a press conference at the State Capitol Wednesday afternoon, Bruce Anderson, the director of the Department of Health, said DOH is already planning to bolster contact tracing and epidemiology staffing across islands and improve the state laboratory.

But it wasn’t clear whether that expansion would come as quickly as Schatz and others have argued is necessary.

Officials announced a new collaboration between the DOH and the University of Hawaii System to train new contact tracers, something that Schatz said he was aware of.

UH President David Lassner, who also participated in the press conference, said the program would begin in late May and train as many as 300 students within the next few months. For those with bachelor’s degrees and a clinical health background, the training would take three days. For those without that background, the training would take three months.

Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson at Governor Ige’s Capitol Rotunda press conference.
Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson at a press conference at the Capitol Rotunda in March on COVID-19. The director believes the state is on the right path in terms of testing and contact tracing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The DOH and UH will also partner to train at least 100 more community health workers per year, including people sensitive to the needs of underrepresented groups who have been most affected by COVID-19 — Native Hawaiians, other Pacific Islanders and those in rural areas.

It was unclear, however, how long it would take to put newly trained workers on the job. The press conference concluded before Civil Beat could ask for a response to Schatz’s call for urgency. During the pandemic, reporters have been asked to submit questions one at a time by text message.

University of Hawaii Spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said in an email Wednesday that the money for that UH program is coming to DOH through an existing grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Funding is still being sorted out, he said.

Approximately $2.4 million was allocated for the contact tracing training program at UH, which includes core staff and all other costs associated for a statewide program.

Money is flowing into the state rapidly from various federal stimulus grants. It’s unclear what the testing and tracing money announced by Schatz Wednesday — $70 million total so far — will be used for.

Asked how much federal money had been allocated, Anderson said $6 million would be used to support expanding staff at the epidemiology branch, laboratory staff and training activities.

And some money is going to support staff at state district health offices on the neighbor islands to enhance contact tracing, he said.

DOH officials also plan to use $25 million of the federal funds for state laboratory upgrades.

“We’re renovating our existing laboratory, which was built about 25 years ago and now is in need of repair and expansion, so that money is very welcome and very helpful for our current and future needs for contact tracing,” Anderson said.

A digital tool called HealthSpace has also helped improve the department’s efficiency with contact tracing, he said.

The Key To Recovery?

Schatz’s office said that the new federal funding is part of the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act passed by Congress in April.

It can be used to “develop, purchase, administer, process and analyze COVID-19 tests, scale-up laboratory capacity, trace contacts, support employer testing, and support other testing-related activities.”

According to the senator’s press release, the new funding for COVID-19 testing follows “the nearly $4 million announced for Hawaii health centers last week, and millions more in financial assistance for health care providers and rural hospitals announced earlier this month.”

As Civil Beat reported last week, there is broad agreement that contact tracing is the key to reopening the state’s economy. But there are disagreements over whether the state has enough people to do the tracing.

Volunteers from the the COVID Command Mobile Unit, of the Premier Medical Group Hawaii, help each other suit up in PPE gear so they can test those who show up for the free drive through testing event in Wahiwa,HI on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Premier Medical Group volunteer health care workers help each other suit up in PPE gear at a COVID-19 testing event in Wahiawa in April. Officials are in disagreement over testing and contact tracing levels. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Anderson has previously said that his department has enough staff to do the work — approximately 77 people, including some volunteers — noting that the state has a relatively low number of active cases compared with many other states. Testing capabilities have also improved across islands, Anderson said.

Seven new private laboratories, including two each on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island and one on Kauai, have the ability to conduct either diagnostic tests or antibody tests, he said.

Earlier this month, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who is in charge of the state’s response to COVID-19, asked Ige to order the DOH to accept help from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

And Dr. Mark Mugiishi, the chief executive of Hawaii Medical Service Association, and Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, called for the deployment of student nurses and out-of-work health care workers for contact tracing.

On Tuesday, Hara said that some Hawaii National Guard members have been assisting with testing and contact tracing to a certain extent. But military lawyers prefer they use the term “COVID-19 mapping” rather than “contact tracing,” Hara told the House Finance Committee.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Anderson said that testing doesn’t necessarily prevent the disease, but social distancing does.

The state health director expressed confidence that the state is prepared for any second wave “as we all move toward a new normal, which includes opening some businesses and travel here to Hawaii.”

Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this article.

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