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Hawaii To Get $50M For Ramped Up Contact Tracing, Funds For UH Tracers Training Sought

AP Photo/Marco Garcia
FILE -- A medical worker talks to a person in their car outside an Urgent Care Hawaii medical clinic March 13, 2019, in Pearl City, Hawaii.

Hawaii is receiving $50 million in federal funding to ramp up contact tracing, Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz announced today. Schatz, alluding to local bickering over the need for more contact tracing staff, urged state leaders to move quickly.

"There's simply not any time left, but there is plenty of money to get this done," said Schatz.

The new federal funding, which was part of the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, 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," Schatz said in a news release.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health on Tuesday asked lawmakers to appropriate about $2.5 million to fund a program at the University of Hawaii that would train workers to track contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said the department hopes this training will begin in the next month.

She said the goal was to have the program train a total of 200 workers in two phases. With the help of a cellphone app that people can use to report their health condition to contact tracers and the more traditional method of making phone calls, each worker would be capable of tracking about 20 people per day. Altogether they would be able to track 4,000 people.

Graduates of the program would join the Medical Reserve Corps and be available to augment staff contact tracers as the need arises.

Park outlined the plan in testimony to the House Finance Committee. The committee was considering a bill appropriating funds provided to Hawaii by federal coronavirus relief legislation.

The health department has come under heavy criticism for failing to ramp up its contact tracing efforts.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Ken Hara, director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, and about 80 health care professionals have called on Gov. David Ige to intervene and push the department to expand contact tracing.

The state's current contact tracking staffing is less than one-tenth of the number recommended by the National Association of County and City Health Officials.  

The health department has 11 staffers who do contact tracing work. The department brought in additional help from other department workers, university nursing students and others to help regular staff as the coronavirus spread in Hawaii this year. At peak, Park estimated almost 100 people were working on contact tracing in Hawaii, she said.

Park said the first phase of the training program would provide two to three days of education to nurses and other people who are already in the medical field.

The second phase would provide two to three months of training for people who don't have a medical background.

Those finishing the program would be certified.

The plan is for the training to be available at community colleges in all counties.

The program would also provide a refresher course to graduates if they don't use their skills for a period of time.

The need for contact tracing in Hawaii has declined in recent days as the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 has dropped.

On Tuesday, the department said one more person tested positive for a total of 635 cases.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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