(BIVN) – U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard held a news conference on Oʻahu on Friday, where she decried the Hawaiʻi Department of Health for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and introduced a DOH employee whistleblower who revealed what is really going on with the State’s contact tracing effort.
Standing behind a podium, Gabbard stated:
In May, the Department of Health said they were adding 30 contact tracers and Governor ige said he was confident that we had enough. But even then, many of us knew we didn’t have nearly enough.
That same month, the Department of Health partnered with UH to create a contact tracing training program. The governor thanked the Hawaiʻi congressional delegation for $50 million dollars of funding to go towards contact tracing and testing. In june, we were told the Department of Health would train over 300 people to do contact tracing and that they had 60 people on staff.
Now in july, just last month, we heard different stories coming from Dr. Park and Dr. Anderson. In mid-July, they said 179 active contact tracers were at work. At the end of July, that number was 77. Just a week later, they reported there were 105 active contact tracers. No explanation for the discrepancy in these numbers, and what we know to be true today is that all of these numbers were a lie.
Last week, there was a surprise visit of our state senators who went and visited the Department of Health. They found that there were less than 10 contact tracers for the island of Oʻahu, and a total of 15 statewide. How is this possible? Our state leaders and the Department of Health have the money, they have the people, they have the guidelines for how to get the job done. And yet, they have failed. They’ve known for months the need to prepare for this exact situation that we are facing, with incredibly high numbers of coronavirus impacting the people of Hawaiʻi. They spoke themselves of the need to be prepared for this situation. And yet, they have failed.
To top it all off, they have lied to the people of Hawaiʻi all along saying ‘don’t worry we have it under control’, when in fact the opposite is true. As a state, we have gone from having some of the lowest numbers, the fewest cases of coronavirus per capita in the country – and proud of the sacrifices and the work that the people of Hawaiʻi did that made that possible – yet today, we are the most infectious state in the country. Much of this can be attributed directly to the fact that, in effect, we have had almost no contact tracing at all, because the few people who are doing this difficult task across our state are so completely overwhelmed that they are unable to do the job that they have been given. Many people who have been exposed to COVID-19 are still waiting for a call from the Department of Health.
So here’s the question: what has changed as a result of all of these failures? Nothing, really. The very same people who have been lying to us for months now still have their positions and they still have their jobs. As recent as yesterday, Governor Ige said he has total confidence in the State Department of Health director Bruce Anderson and the State Epidemiologist Sarah Park. This is astounding to me. My question is, what will it take for our state leaders to actually fight for the people of Hawaiʻi? To put their interests ahead of any other interest?
How many more people need to die until appropriate action is taken to preserve and protect the health and lives of the people of our state?
Rep. Gabbard went on to introduce the whistleblower: Dr. Jennifer Smith, an Epidemiological Specialist/Influenza Surveillance and Response Coordinator in the Hawaiʻi Department of Health’s Disease Investigation Branch, with an expertise in virology and pandemics. She is one of less than 10 case investigators on the island of Oʻahu who is conducting contact tracing.
Today, you’re going to hear from a brave department of health employee who has courageously come forward to tell the people of Hawaiʻi the truth about the impacts of this failure of leadership in our state, and how the health and lives of the people of Hawaiʻi are being impacted as a result. She has been working along with her colleagues to raise the alarm bells within the Department of Health for months about the direness of this situation and about how she and her colleagues who have been tasked with contact tracing are unable to fulfill this impossible task because there aren’t enough of them to do it. She’s here today because she felt she had no other option available to her than to speak out publicly, even at risk of potential retaliation or losing her job.
Dr. Jennifer Smith then took to the podium to tell her story. She said:
We were asked by leadership, on a daily basis, how many cases could we interview? We told them three at the most. Given that, again, contact tracing is just a portion of what we’re doing.
So our job, number one, is to contact the person who tests positive and determine where they may have been exposed. Secondly, we get a list of their close contacts so we determine then who they may have exposed. And finally we need to recommend prevention and implement control measures, such as quarantine and isolation. There are a lot of peripheral tasks that we’ve been asked to take on, as well as that. We were told we should do at least five cases a day. That’s great when we have one person, who may not have traveled, who doesn’t work, who lives alone. But when I have a family of 22 people, that is an enormous undertaking for one person. And that would take me away from other cases for several days.
And I have sat there. I came in on a Tuesday, I had 22 cases in my queue, by Wednesday afternoon I was up to 47, and on Thursday as i sit and watch the numbers tick up. 56, 57, 58, 59. I got so overwhelmed and panicked, and I just had to leave. I just, I had a panic attack. I couldn’t… I didn’t know where to start… I didn’t know what to do.
All of these people deserve the same attention and care that all the other cases have received.
Rep. Gabbard says she has raised these concerns with Congressional leaders, who “share her concerns and are committed to conducting oversight to ensure federal resources provided for testing and tracing are being used to serve the people of Hawai‘i.” Gabbard stated:
Would we be standing here today without Dr. Smith? The answer is no. And this just points to, again, the lack of transparency and honesty and the information we have all been given from the Department of Health thus far. And the reality that – and I was really shocked by this – but when the state legislators went and showed up at the Department of Health unannounced, the the public response by director Bruce Anderson was one of anger. As though they had no right. I think he actually said that publicly. They had no right, or something along those lines. These are elected leaders charged with the responsibility of oversight of our state departments, including the Department of Health, and they’re responsible for funding. Of course, they have every right to walk in there at any time to be able to see what’s going on. And the response from Dr. Anderson and Sarah Park, to me, expressing their anger, was indicative of the problem of leadership. Where you have people who believe that they are somehow not responsible to the people of Hawaiʻi and that they are only responsible unto themselves. And that’s a very dangerous thing.
During the news conference, Rep. Gabbard was joined by two specialists, Dr. DeWolfe Miller, an expert infectious disease epidemiologist, and Dr. Scott Miscovich, a physician and the president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaiʻi, who is running COVID testing sites across the state. Both spoke to the importance of contact tracing and testing in stopping COVID-19, and criticized the state’s approach. Gabbard said:
The emphasis that we are putting on this here today is one of containing and defeating this virus. But I know there are conversations going on about potentially lifting the 14 day quarantine on September 1st, as long as people have this COVID test. The details that have been put forward by the governor, the only way the only way we can get to a point where we can lift that 14-day travel quarantine with these testing requirements is if we have a robust contact tracing program in place. It’s the only way it’s going to work. Without that… any conversation about lifting the 14-day travel quarantine really is a moot point.