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Hawaii plans to reduce number of state contact tracers

HONOLULU — The acting Hawaii state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said the number of state contact tracers will shrink after the end of the year.

Kemble told reporters Wednesday that the program is currently overstaffed and will downsize to match demand.

The state Department of Health said it currently has 103 permanent staff, 194 contractors, 62 National Guardsmen and 32 volunteers conducting contact-tracing duties. The state agency did not say exactly how many tracers would be let go.

The health department had been criticized earlier in the pandemic for what critics said was a failure to build an adequate contact-tracing program, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Since then, the state has hired hundreds of contact tracers, but many are now inactive, according to Kemble.

“We’re in a really different place than we were back in the summer,” Kemble said. “We now have a much larger trained workforce. Hawaii is actually doing pretty well right now. Based on current case counts we have excess capacity for contact tracing to reach every case.”

The number of cases in the state peaked during the summer and have stayed relatively consistent since October, according to state health department data.

Kemble left the door open to hiring more contact tracers if cases spike again.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat, had sent a letter on Tuesday to Gov. David Ige challenging the governor to provide reasons as to why he would reduce the number of contact tracers in the state. The letter also pressed Ige on how he would pay for the program after federal coronavirus relief funds expire at the end of the year.

“I urge you to maintain the expanded contact tracing program beyond the end of the year and to utilize all available resources to do so,” Schatz wrote. “Now is not the time to let our foot off the pedal — we must do all we can to keep the number of new cases low and protect the health of the residents of Hawaii.”

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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