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Lawmaker implies state health director withheld information about 2 COVID-19 clusters

  • ANDERSON

  • HANKINS

The state health director and the lead medical coordinator for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency were in the hot seat Wednesday before the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19.

State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz of Oahu was critical of Health Director Bruce Anderson’s “failure … to properly articulate methodology” for the DOH’s efforts to trace people who came into contact with individuals who tested positive for coronavirus.

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He also implied that Anderson withheld information from the public about COVID-19 clusters at Maui Memorial Medical Center and three Kailua-Kona McDonald’s restaurants.

Anderson told the committee some of the 32 cases in the Kona cluster included McDonald’s employees from the Marshall Islands and their families.

“We had six, seven employees right off the top positive. We traced them back to … two different McDonald’s,” Anderson said. “They work, go home, and we actually then got some positive cases from when they’re at home, family members who got sick. And they, in turn, took the disease back to other workplaces.

“This Marshallese community in the Kona area … basically were in living situations where they couldn’t effectively isolate themselves.”

Dela Cruz asked if “part of the reason why you don’t disclose this is because there’s a stigma attached, and it makes it more difficult to get responses from these people if you start outing communities?”

“We have found, often, people are blamed where they shouldn’t be,” Anderson replied. “… People go to work when they’re sick but don’t even know that they’re COVID-19 cases. … And we try to balance sharing information that we think might be helpful to give people assurance that we’re aggressively pursuing this, and at the same time … not compromise the investigation by revealing more than we should.”

Added Dr. Steven Hankins, an Oahu practitioner and the HI-EMA medical coordinator, “We are seeing reports, you know, from the mainland of people who are being physically assaulted, so I do think we have to balance those private citizen rights and risks.”

“It’s happened here, too,” Anderson interjected. “I won’t mention the island, but we’ve had a number of situations where people have blamed someone else for having created a problem in their community. And that’s something we want to avoid if we can.”

Anderson told the lawmakers it’s vital that contact tracers gain the trust of the contacts to elicit the necessary information.

“We do have to honor the privacy of the individuals,” he said. “And it’s not just to protect their own privacy, but to be sure that people are feeling comfortable about talking to us so that they reveal the information that we need to know to be able to track down additional cases. Remember, many of these people are their friends, their co-workers and others. They’re not going to tell us anything if they think their friends and co-workers are going to be … harmed because of the investigation.

“Disease investigations are like any other kind of detective work. You find there are lots of things happening and it takes a very skilled person to kind of weave their way through this whole thing.”

Anderson said while the state isn’t yet ready to reopen for business, Hawaii has the fewest deaths from COVID-19 in the nation, and local labs are capable of doing about 1,000 COVID-19 tests per day without compromising their ability to do other lab work.

“Our capacity to do testing has increased dramatically, to the point that it’s probably not a huge constraint in most of the investigations that we’re doing,” he said. “At least, when we look at contacts and close contacts, we’re able to do the testing of virtually everyone who we think might have been close contacts or exposed.”

As of noon Wednesday, DOH reported six new COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to 592.

Three of the new cases are in Hawaii County, bringing its total to 67, while the other three are in the City and County of Honolulu, upping its tally to 388.

Maui County has had 110 cases while Kauai County remains at 21 cases.

Six Hawaii residents were diagnosed outside the state, but are reported as Hawaii cases according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Statewide, 63 COVID-19 cases have required hospitalization, the DOH said — an increase of seven cases from Tuesday’s report — and 444 individuals have been released from isolation.

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There have been no new coronavirus-related deaths, the DOH said, and the statewide death toll remained at 12.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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