SENATE SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON COVID-19 VISITS HAWAIʽI CONVENTION CENTER TO ASSESS PROGRESS OF CONTACT TRACING AND UNEMPLOYMENT PROGRAMS
On Wednesday, October 28, 2020, the Hawai’i Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 performed a site visit to the Hawaii Convention Center to assess the latest contact tracing efforts from the Department of Health's Disease Investigation Branch and Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
Members of the Committee received an in-depth briefing from the agencies regarding their progress in rebuilding the Department of Health's contact tracing program. Dr. Emily Roberson, who has been heading the branch since July, highlighted the critical components of their restructuring of the program and how the branch's approaches have changed since the Committee's last visit to the Convention Center.
Dr. Roberson noted that the re-alignment has allowed the branch to achieve its initial goal of performing its first outreach call on 100% of new cases within 24-hrs. However, the program is still hindered by cases of inaccurate or missing contact information and individuals who do not answer their phones. Dr. Roberson added that the restructuring has also allowed for more significant data collection and regional trend identification, which has added significantly to the effectiveness of their program. This has also contributed to their ability to better identify high-risk populations so that these cases can be expedited to mitigate the additional risk.
Finally, the department has emphasized building up the program's capacity within individual ethnic communities through the enlistment of translators and the hiring of individual community leaders, identified by the respective communities themselves. According to Dr. Roberson, these efforts have shown to have had a remarkable impact on the program's effectiveness. The Committee asked that certain indicators be included in the Department of Health's informational dashboard so that the program's effectiveness could be continuously monitored by the public.
Following the Contact Tracing update, members attended a briefing presented by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations' Unemployment Insurance Division (UI). They received a report of the division's latest efforts and plans to ensure the financial stability of local residents in the coming months. During the visit, Director Anne E. Perreira-Eustaquio guided the Senators through a tour of their current operations.
The members of the Committee spoke at length with the Director about UI's continued focus on the adjudication of pending claims, which represents the vast majority of the remaining outstanding cases. The Director highlighted the efforts of DLIR staff and the countless volunteers that have donated their time and legal backgrounds towards this cause.
In addition, Director Perreira-Eustaquio presented the department's newest efforts to roll out the Federal-State Unemployment Insurance Extended Benefits program, which launched on October 27, 2020. This program would extend benefits after an unemployed individual exhausts their twenty-six weeks of state unemployment and thirteen weeks of federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation allotments.
In response to questions from the Committee, Director Perreira-Eustaquio provided an overview of the department's continued efforts to identify fraudulent claims. During the discussion, a DLIR employee mentioned that it felt like nearly half of all new unemployment claims appeared to be fraudulent. The Director reassured the Senators that appropriate measures were being taken to detect the fraudulent claims and turn them over to the appropriate authorities.
"We really want to thank everyone still working on unemployment for their hard work," added Senator Fevella. "If you have a claim in and are still waiting to get paid, please answer your phones. These guys are working seven days a week, even on Sundays, trying to get these checks out to you guys."
"We’re very pleased with the progress made in increasing the number of contact tracers, as well as with UI's continued efforts in processing unemployment claims." Stated the Committee's Chair, Senator Donovan M. Dela Cruz. He added, "I am concerned, though, about how these operations are going to continue when CARES Act funds end in December."