By Associated Press - Wednesday, August 19, 2020

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii Gov. David Ige on Wednesday blamed a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases for the state falling short when it comes to tracing the contacts of people with the disease.

Ige spoke at a news conference at the Hawaii Convention Center where the state Department of Health has started using empty meeting space to host an expanded team of contact tracers.

He said the state had created a program with the University of Hawaii to train more people to trace contacts and had planned to bring on more people. But then the number of cases jumped, he said.

“This most recent two-to-three weeks has been a significant increase in the rate of infection that we did not see before. And it’s that rapid increase in the acceleration in the number of cases that has led to this shortage of contact tracing,” Ige said.

There are currently 96 people tracing contacts on Oahu and a combined 30 doing so in Kauai, Maui and Hawaii counties. Another 13 staff members support their efforts.

Of these, 50 are working in a cavernous ballroom at the convention center on the edge of Waikiki, which has enough space for people to do their jobs while practicing social distancing.

The state last week said it had hired a new leader for its disease investigation branch in mid-July to bolster its contact tracing efforts.

Dr. Emily Roberson said she had made some changes to make tracing contacts more efficient, including handing off to social workers jobs like finding housing for people with the disease who need to isolate away from their homes.

She said contact tracers were prioritizing cases in high risk occupations like health care or in high risk institutional housing situations like nursing homes or correctional institutions.

“The goal is to contact everybody,” said Roberson. “But that prioritization is there as we’re ramping up just to make sure that we’re directing all of our efforts in the way that is most likely to prevent these population level outcomes like outbreaks and clusters from occurring.”

Ige defended Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist who has come under criticism from Lt. Gov. Josh Green and others for her handling of contact tracing. Ige said Park has worked on numerous other disease outbreaks like SARS and Zika and understands Hawaii well.

Hawaii was still doing better than average in handling the coronavirus pandemic compared to other states, the governor said.

“I think for the first four months we’ve done very well. It’s just been this recent increase in the number of cases,” Ige said.

On Wednesday, Hawaii reported 261 new cases of the disease.

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