A California congresswoman is pressing Gov. David Ige for answers on why Hawaii has had such a turnaround on its COVID-19 infection rate and whether it mismanaged millions of dollars in federal stimulus money aimed at helping with virus prevention efforts.

In a letter dated Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, who chairs the House Health subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, asked Ige for more information on the Hawaii Department of Health’s testing and contact tracing program, including things like how many contact tracing personnel the state has had on staff each week since the outbreak began.

“As you know, less than two months ago, Hawaii had the lowest number of COVID-19 cases per capita of any state in the nation,” wrote Eshoo, a California Democrat whose district includes Silicon Valley. “However, this trend has reversed and now Hawaii has the highest infection rate in the United States.”

Eshoo’s criticisms and demands for transparency echoed those of U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who last week called for the resignations of Hawaii Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson and Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard press conference announcing a future congressional inquiry into whistleblower Dr. Jennifer Smith’s accusations. August 14, 2020
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard held a press conference last week to talk about the state’s contact tracing capacity and why it has fallen short. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“The crisis we face today is a direct result of our state’s failed leadership,” Gabbard said in a press release that cited Eshoo’s letter. “Governor Ige and his team had months to hire, train and deploy a robust contact tracing team to prevent the very situation we face today.

“Months ago we worked in Congress to deliver over $50 million in funding to the state so that they had the resources to trace, test, and contain future COVID-19 cases. Yet, we have around a dozen people doing contact tracing today, who are so overwhelmed that they can only reach a small number of individuals who have contracted COVID-19.”

Gabbard blamed Ige and his staff for dropping the ball on contact tracing and testing and suggested the state’s inaction led to the outbreak Hawaii is currently experiencing.

“If Governor Ige and his team had done what they were supposed to do, we could have prevented the major outbreak we are experiencing today that has taken more lives and resulted in so many of our kupuna, families and keiki getting infected and sick,” she said in the statement. “This is a punch in the gut to Hawai‘i residents who have sacrificed so much to try to prevent the spread of this virus, only to see our state leaders failing the people.”

Last week, in a joint press conference with a DOH whistleblower, Gabbard accused Anderson and Park of lying about the state’s capacity to do contact tracing after Jennifer Smith, a Ph.D. virologist and case investigator for the Department of Health, came forward to say the department’s lack of tracing capacity contributed to a recent surge in cases.

After Smith last week said the department recently had only nine people doing contact tracing on Oahu, the department in a statement responded that it has about 100 for the state, and continues to add more. The statement did not respond directly to Gabbard’s statement that Anderson and Park lied.

Asked about Eshoo’s letter at a news conference on Wednesday, Ige said he had not had time to formulate a full response to the letter but said of the $50 million in CARES Act money, some $2.5 million was being used to train contact tracers from the University of Hawaii and $10 million to increase testing and surveillance capacity, including systems for data management and lab testing equipment.

Although public health officials have shifted the blame onto the public for participating in gatherings that let the virus spread, it appears a lack of contact tracing contributed to Hawaii’s recent surge in cases. For much of May, it appeared the state had all but eliminated the virus, as the weekly average of new cases hovered at less than two.

The plan was to use extensive testing and tracing to keep the virus in clusters as the economy opened. As the state prepared to open the local economy in early June, Anderson rebuffed attempts to provide extra contact tracers and vowed the department would be able to “surge from within” to ramp up tracing capacity to trace and contain the expected surge in cases.

But that didn’t happen. And as Eshoo noted, “From early June through the end of July, your state’s cases more than tripled to 2,111 confirmed infections, and from July 31 through August 14, the state’s cases doubled and now stand at 5,042 positive cases.”

Eshoo, whose committee has oversight over public health and quarantine among other health-related issues, wants detailed information from the Ige administration about the contact tracing program that has been in place since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared an emergency more than five months ago.

She also wants to know how the state has used federal money aimed at the coronavirus response, including how much the state has received for testing and contact tracing and how much remains unspent.

Eshoo also wants the state to provide a plan and timeline for bringing Hawaii’s testing and tracing effort up to national standards.

“Due to the numerous instances of conflicting and false information being released to the public by your Department of Health regarding the number of contact tracers employed and their capabilities, what specific actions will you take to restore the integrity of the Department of Health?” Eshoo asked.

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