HONOLULU (KHON2) — To combat the spread of COVID-19, officials have relied on contact tracing, but public workers tell us that effort has fallen so far behind it’s posing a much larger public health problem. A union representing tracers alleges staffing is just a fraction of what the Department of Health has claimed.

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People on the inside validate what we’ve been hearing from survivors and seeing in belated tracing announcements: It can be days and even weeks before any outreach is made, with a relative skeleton crew now overwhelmed by the avalanche of cases. Gov. David Ige says a big scale-up at the Hawaii Convention Center is underway.

The Hawaii Government Employee’s Association, the state’s largest public worker union, says only 18 specialists and some additional help — not 105 people as the Health Department testified at the Capitol last week — are on the team charged with tracking who else is at risk from each COVID-19 case. This and other allegations are in a formal grievance HGEA filed with the Department of Health.

The grievance stated: “Contrary to what is being communicated to the media by the DOH, HGEA is aware of 15 ES (Epidemiological Specialists) on Oahu and 3 on the neighbor islands… Further, the HGEA was made aware that some ES’ have been required to perform both COVID-19 field swabbing and outbreak response duties. It is alleged that some Employees tasked with these duties have not received/been provided with any official guidelines, protocols or proper training. Rather, they were simply provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and directed to go out and swab or to report to positive COVID-19 persons homes to collect medical specimens.”

The Department of Health told KHON2 on Tuesday that there are more than 105 contact tracers working statewide as of this week, and that they received HGEA’s notification of a class grievance yesterday.

“We have reached out to HGEA and are in the process of gathering information to respond to their request for information,” the DOH told KHON2 in a statement. “We have assured HGEA that we are taking appropriate action to address the areas of concern that were outlined in the grievance.”

With thousands of active cases, there’s no telling what’s falling through the cracks with tracing and notification delays. It took the DOH two weeks to reach out on August 8 for public information to a gentlemen’s club case from July 23-25. Another survivor from a gym cluster told us tracing was already nearing a week late even in early July.

“Not to put anything on the Department of Health, but I was guided that they would take care of that process,” survivor George Ma told KHON2 regarding his experience with contact tracing after his July 4th positive test result. “At that time, I’m already so sick and I’m battling COVID. Luckily, I had to make that decision to contact everyone, and I’m glad I did that because the contact tracers, they didn’t get to my friends and family until like five days later.”

Ma says the DOH did not reach out to him either until July 9.

“That’s not on them,” Ma said of the workers doing the tracing. “There are a lot of people, especially now how the numbers have increased, so it’s really tough for the department to contact every single person.”

HGEA told KHON2: “Our members have been working incredibly hard to keep up with contact tracing but it has become an impossible task. The steady surge in cases over the last couple of weeks may have been mitigated if the DOH had brought on additional staff more quickly. This grievance represents the tip of the iceberg of a much larger public health problem. HGEA implores our government leaders to put all differences aside, hire sufficient contact tracers, and promptly implement policies that will get this surge under control. The health of our entire community is at stake.”

Gov. David Ige sat down with KHON2’s Manolo Morales on Tuesday and told him help is on the way.

“I have directed the Department of Health to accelerate plans to bring more people on board,” Ige said. “We have activated the Hawaii Convention Center and as we speak we are bringing on board staff, and will definitely have more specific number of people that we’re able to hire in the next day or so.”

The governor’s move comes after hundreds of people completed a training program through the University of Hawaii, and after dozens of Hawaii National Guard personnel — 25 on Oahu and 12 training for Maui — have jumped in to help with what they call “COVID mapping.” That’s not conducting full tracing, but making phone calls and data entry.

Draft-plans already on hand submitted to the state Department of Defense outline various models for scaling-up tracing and personnel. But the DOD tells KHON2 that none of those are viable immediately, and that they have no near-term plans to surge-up tracing, take over or do things differently.

“That is up to the Department of Health,” the DOD responded to written questions. “If they need numbers of personnel to assist, they ask. National Guard Personnel will assist HIDOH when requested in gathering voluntarily provided data from persons potentially infected with COVID-19, along with persons and locations they may have come into contact with, in order to prevent spread of the virus.”

“It is important to note the situation is very fluid. As the numbers of cases have risen, the workload of our contact tracers has increased,” the Department of Health told KHON2. “The National Guard is providing additional personnel to do contact tracing, and we are onboarding a number of new contact tracers. Additional space is being procured and equipped. Any overtime is being compensated. We continue our efforts to move assets, improve processes, and respond effectively to this extraordinary circumstance.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green expressed his frustrations Tuesday morning on KHON2’s Wake Up 2Day: “You have to ramp up for real, which should have been done in March, April, May, June. Ramp up that number to an army that we can actually trace it,” Green said. “We have to do these things because we’re reaching a point of no return.”

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