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Hawaii Health Department has new contact tracing leader

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Hawaii’s top health officials have turned their much maligned “contact tracing” program over to a new hire, following record numbers of COVID-19 cases and a call for the removal of the state’s health director and epidemiologist.

By the end of the week, there should be more than 100 contact tracers spread across the state, including 18 “contact tracer team leaders” from the Hawaii National Guard and approximately 20 contact tracers hired through a University of Hawaii training program, Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an email Wednesday.

More than a week ago, Health officials said they already had 105 active contact tracers and possibly some other staff, along with Hawaii National Guard members, public health nurses, and volunteers.

Whatever the exact numbers, the number of Hawaii’s contact tracers appears to be well below the 420 to 564 Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Hawaii needs to be on par with national recommendations.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard called for the removal of Health Director Bruce Anderson and state epidemiologist Sarah Park.

“This is gross negligence,” Gabbard tweeted. “Anderson & Park need to go.”

In her email to the Star-Advertiser Wednesday, Okubo wrote, “Bruce Anderson and Dr. Sarah Park have led the pandemic response efforts based on sound national guidance and have had to work within constraints. They have been able to navigate this pandemic and helped us achieve many positive milestones that many have forgotten.

“Hawaii is not the only state that is experiencing a disenchantment with their public health leaders. Across the country, at least 49 state and local public health leaders in 23 states have stepped down.

“We believe there is always room for improvement, and we will continue to refine and enhance our efforts in prevention, detection, containment and treatment.”

Several key state legislators on Wednesday expressed ongoing frustration with the Health Department’s response to COVID-19, but declined to join Gabbard in calling for the removal of Anderson or Park.

Still several legislators called for new leadership of the department’s contact tracing program.

Okubo said Dr. Emily Robinson was hired on July 16 to lead the Health Department’s Disease Investigation Branch, including its contact tracing program.

Robinson is now “reorganizing and re-envisioning the efficiency, capacity, reach, and effectiveness of the branch that manages disease investigation and contact tracing,” Okubo wrote.

Gabbard’s call for the removal of Anderson and Park follows the departures of the heads of the state departments of Tax, Human Services and Labor and Industrial Relations just since July.

The pace of change in Gov. David Ige’s Administration, including a new attorney general hired in January, has raised concern among some lawmakers.

“Normally, three or four directors leave for a variety of reasons over a four-year time period. But certainly not this volume in this short period of time,” said Sen. Glenn Wakai (D, Pearl Harbor-Kalihi), who chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology. “It’s not normal. But we aren’t in normal times.”

Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki on Wednesday were not willing to join Gabbard in calling for the ouster of Anderson or Park.

But they clearly have not been happy with the Health Department’s unwillingness to accept offers from the University of Hawaii, private Hawaii universities, the Hawaii National Guard and Department of Defense to provide additional trained contact tracers, including some at no cost.

“I just hope the Health Department will be more open to accepting help,” Saiki said.

Kouchi said, “I’ve been clear since back in April. We needed to get additional contact tracers.”

Instead of more resignations or departures, several legislators said they would prefer to see the department’s contact tracing operation ramped up and moved out of the cramped Department of Health offices across the street from the state Capitol and into the Hawai‘i Convention Center. The convention center most recently was used for last week’s primary election — and previously to handle increased staffing to address unemployment claims — all while allowing for social distancing in the era of COVID-19.

Members of the special Senate committee on COVID-19 toured the Health Department’s contact tracing operation on Friday and still have questions.

State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, (D, Kailua­-Kaneohe) was particularly struck by what he perceived as the Health Department’s lack of urgency in responding to the pandemic. But he was still unwilling to call for dismissals.

“They still refuse to admit there’s a problem,” Keohokalole said. “That’s the biggest gripe I have with Bruce (Anderson). They need help. But chopping off heads is not helping. It’s creating more of a challenge.”

In her email to the Star-Advertiser, Okubo wrote that Oahu now has “76 individuals working on contact tracing and investigation. … There are 15 additional contact tracing and case investigation staff who will be working this coming weekend on Oahu. This makes a total of 100 staff working on Oahu to investigate cases this week. Additional staff located on Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii Island investigate cases in those counties for a statewide total of more than 100 staff members focused on the investigation of cases with positive test results.”

The new staff include 18 National Guard “contact tracer team leaders” who reported on Monday and another three who are expected by the end of the week, Okubo wrote.

Approximately 20 contact tracers hired through a UH training program are also expected by the end of the week, with another 20 “beginning the onboarding process next week,” Okubo wrote.

Without providing specific numbers, Okubo wrote that “volunteers are also assisting with contact tracing, data analysis, and other disease response activities via the Medical Reserve Corps, university internship programs, medical residency programs, nursing clinical rotations, and community volunteering partnerships. Additional space has been procured and equipped. Any overtime is being compensated. We continue our efforts to move assets, improve processes, and respond effectively to this extraordinary circumstance.”

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