KITV 4 ABC | Whistleblower claims state health officials are lying about contact tracing program
August 14, 2020
In The News
Dr. Jennifer Smith says there's no army of contact tracers -- only a group of demoralized workers buried under mounting positive cases and forgotten by their leadership.
A whistleblower from the Department of Health sounded the alarm on what she describes as dire conditions that make it impossible to do effective contact tracing.
Dr. Jennifer Smith has been a case investigator for DOH since 2016 and says she had no choice but to go public to get help. There is no army of contact tracers -- only a group of demoralized workers buried under mounting positive cases, believing they've been forgotten by their leadership.
Smith says health director Bruce Anderson has never met with her team during the pandemic, and Dr. Sarah Park spoke to them only once.
"All I heard was do more, do more, do more. All the while I thought we're drowning. There's not much more to give. It was just too much," said Smith, who said she suffered a panic attack from the overwhelming amount of cases assigned to her -- at one point as many as 59.
She says she watched press conferences where Anderson and Park said more contact tracers would be added, but no help came. She felt it was time to tell the public what's really happening.
All positive cases reported to DOH by a hospital or clinician start with an investigator who interviews the infected person and identifies people they may have come into close and prolonged contact with. Those contacts can be passed on to another worker to do contact tracing.
But the bottleneck starts with the small number of investigators on staff. As far as she can tell, Smith says 10 investigators are handling contact tracing on Oahu and four on neighbor islands. They also have other duties that take up time, including collecting and entering data into the DOH's system.
Dr. Park previously told KITV-4 a tracer can manage as many as 20 cases, but Smith says the reality is they can only do a handful each day. And with cases rising, Smith believes people are slipping through the cracks and have not been contacted for several days after testing positive.
"It's so hard knowing that I can't get to them and I can't do the same level of job that I was doing several months ago," Smith said.
As to DOH's claims that 50 to 100 contact tracers are on the job, Smith said she is not aware of anyone teleworking or DOH staff reassigned.
With the support of U.S. representative Tulsi Gabbard, Smith told reporters she risked possible retaliation to stand up for her team.
"Someone has to speak up, someone needs to say something. This has to change. We can't continue the way we're moving right now," she said.
Rep. Gabbard wants the state to hire at least 560 people to do contact tracing and increase testing, including of close contacts of positive cases even if they are asymptomatic.
A Department of Health spokesperson said there were no lies by the DOH on the number of contact tracers and that 100 staff is working on Oahu this week.
Danette Wong Tomiyasu, DOH Deputy Director of Health Resources, gave KITV-4 this statement: "The Department of Health is acutely aware of the important role of disease investigation in fighting this pandemic. We have brought on additional staffing and resources and are working to further expand and realign the work of our disease investigation staff. We have expedited the redeployment of DOH staff from other programs, established teams of National Guard personnel, and continue to work with the University of Hawaii, Medical Reserve Corps and other entities to recruit skilled and knowledgeable workers. Increasing efficiency with the use of technology, equipment, and streamlining processes is also taking place to balance workloads and identify priorities. We want to see better results and are intensely aware of our service to the people of Hawaii. The work of our entire public health staff is a testament to the enduring commitment the department has to Hawaii."
Rep. Gabbard repeated her call for Governor David Ige to replace Anderson and Park and said she's working with Congressional leadership on a possible federal inquiry into how millions of dollars of CARES Act money meant for contact tracing have been used by the state.
Yesterday, the state said a new head of Disease Investigation, Dr. Emily Roberson, took over contact tracing at DOH. But Rep. Gabbard believe it's not enough.
"I don't believe this change has gone anywhere near enough to restore the integrity and trust in our state leadership," she said.
Dr. Scott Miscovich of the Premier Medical Group said he and Lt. Gov Josh Green secured whistleblower immunity for Smith in exchange for her inside information.
"This is not just her verbal. There is a very defined matrix of how many people each person was assigned and when, and the numbers are outrageous to see how they were assigned month by month by month and a little peripheral list of 2, 3 and 4 people that hadn't done anything," Dr. Miscovich said. "The smoke and mirrors has to stop."
Smith said her team of investigators are encouraged by the new leadership and need the public's support as they push for more change.
"I'm so proud of the work our team has done and humbled by all of their sacrifices," she said through tears.