Despite urging from lawmakers and public health officials, the state Department of Health continues to withhold what many see as important information about the spread of COVID-19 in the islands — details about virus clusters, including how others are being infected.

Civil Beat requested specific information under the state public records law several weeks ago about how clusters are actively monitored and how infections originated, but state health officials have yet to provide the data. Gov. David Ige suspended the state’s public records and open meetings laws in March.

Deparment of Health COVID-19 contact tracing workstations inside the 4th floor of the Hawaii Convention Center where earlier Governor Ige held his press conference.
The Department of Health has not been transparent about the findings of its COVID-19 contact tracing team, which is headquartered at the Hawaii Convention Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The health department has never included detailed information about virus clusters in its daily data dashboard.

Instead, the public has received sporadic hints, sometimes via press conferences, only once culminating in a limited August report about where some former chains of infection began — at a gym, a funeral and a correctional center, to name a few. That list of locations where outdated clusters had originated was quietly erased from the dashboard.

The health department’s consistent failure to publish key information about the latest COVID-19 case clusters inhibits public understanding of the disease and behavioral response, local lawmakers and academics say. It also weakens the government’s policy response.

Understanding how clusters originate will improve chances of stopping the virus from spreading in the future and help both policy makers and public health professionals prevent similar clusters, said House Speaker Scott Saiki.

When the Hawaii House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness requested specific information about the locations and types of activities associated with infection clusters this summer, department officials said they did not have the data. 

“I would have hoped over the past three months the department would have upgraded its ability to gather this kind of data,” Saiki said. “It’s really important for the public to have access to this information so the public understands how and where clusters form.” 

The health department has yet to provide the cluster information Civil Beat requested on Oct. 19 and isn’t required to since Gov. David Ige indefinitely suspended Hawaii’s public records law.

The department should be able to publish this type of information if its staff is actively collecting it, data scientists and public health experts say.

Speaker of the House Scott Saiki speaks during COVID19 Coronavirus press conference held at the Capitol.
House Speaker Scott Saiki, who chairs the House COVID-19  committee, has called on the health department to provide more details about coronavirus infection clusters for months. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“There’s ways to share information with the public that still protects the privacy of cases, but at the same time informs the public about how the disease is spreading, what kinds of precautions should be taken, and even the lessons learned about how it’s transmitted,” said University of Hawaii health economist Victoria Fan, chair of the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Work Group.

In Taiwan, for example, Fan says the public is notified about every single new case, including details about how that person is believed to have contracted the COVID-19 virus. Taiwanese officials also include information about how many contacts of those infected have been traced, alerted and isolated. Those details are provided without identifying the individual. 

Performance metrics for the state’s contact tracing efforts are also crucial to understanding how effectively the state is able to respond, she said.

“HIPAM has been asking for that since April and we haven’t gotten it,” she said. 

Governor David Ige sits durign contact tracing press conference held at the Hawaii Convention Center. August 19, 2020
Gov. David Ige indefinitely suspended Hawaii’s public records law in March. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Public health authorities elsewhere in the country are using data about clusters to refine their response.

The Massachusetts health department found clusters in private homes, child care centers, nursing homes, prisons and jails, industrial sites, hospitals and social events.  

Knowing the size and origin of case clusters would help the public to gauge how widespread transmission is, said Thomas Lee, a University of Hawaii assistant professor of epidemiology and co-chair of HIPAM. It would also help forecasters like Lee make predictions about what types of case surges could be around the corner. 

“If we understand what’s going on then we have better ability to take responsibility for our own actions and as a whole reduce transmissions, not just rely on blanket measures like ‘everybody wears a mask,’” he said. “People can be compliant because they’ll understand where it’s being transmitted.”

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