Gov. David Ige has admonished Senate President Ron Kouchi after members of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 toured the Health Department on Aug. 7 to review contact tracing operations at the invitation of the state epidemiologist — but apparently without enough advance notice.
The five members of the committee did not show the Health Department “courtesy” and instead “misled the surprised DOH employee who answered their knock at the side of the door by blaming the unexpected intrusion on (state epidemiologist) Dr. Sarah Park,” Ige wrote to Kouchi on Tuesday. “Committee members ignored the security protocols and made their way into an area where contact tracing activities involving sensitive, protective health information were ongoing.”
State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, a member of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, called Ige’s letter both inaccurate and “petty.”
“People are dying and the governor’s response speaks for itself,” Keohokalole said Saturday. “This is a crisis and this is where his (Ige’s) focus is?”
Keohokalole said Park had invited members of the committee to the Health Department just the day before. Keohokalole said he led the other senators into Park’s fourth-floor office “and I asked for Dr. Park. The receptionist went back and got her and she (Park) smiled and laughed and said, ‘Oh, you guys are here.’ Sarah was pleased to have us go through. She could have said, ‘It’s not a good time.’ But she went out of her way to express her desire for more support for her division and her operation. They need more equipment, they need more staff. She continually said it.”
Asked if any Health Department employees expressed concern about the senators’ presence, Keohokalole said, “Absolutely not.”
Park was later joined by two deputy directors and led the committee members through an hourlong tour of every floor of the Health Department, where they saw offices and even a kitchen that had been converted into space for contact tracing, Keohokalole said.
“They were strewn all throughout the building,” he said. “It appeared like a boot-strap operation.”
The Health Department is now making arrangements to bring on several hundred more contact tracers and move the operation to the Hawai‘i Convention Center, Kouchi said.
Ige’s two-page letter chastising the Senate committee — followed by Kouchi’s two-page response on Thursday — come at a time of surging COVID-19 cases across the islands while the economy is in tatters, the scheduled return of tourism is in doubt, and teachers and school officials are squabbling over when and how to restart the school year.
The letters between two of the state’s top elected officials also represent another example of Ige’s strained relationship with some key legislators with two years left in his final term.
Ige on Saturday did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the correspondences between himself and Kouchi.
In his response to Ige, Kouchi wrote: “Your demand that I ‘ensure’ that legislators ‘should never again’ appear unannounced at another ‘state department’ in order to ‘protect and support our public servants’ rings hollow because your administration has previously condoned unannounced department visits by legislators, i.e., when members of the House of Representatives, including Speaker Scott Saiki, Representatives Sylvia Luke and news media, went to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) unannounced, toured DLIR and spoke with employees and Director Scott Murakami about DLIR’s inability to timely address and process unemployment claims.”
In a phone interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Saturday, Kouchi said some of the concerns expressed in Ige’s letter “simply weren’t true” based on multiple reports from members of the Senate COVID-19 committee.
Ige gave the impression “they were wandering around unsupervised and interacting with employees, which would have been inappropriate,” Kouchi said. “They were escorted by Dr. Park and they were simply going where they were directed.”
Repeatedly pressed to describe the tenor of the exchange between himself and the governor, Kouchi said: “I would refer to the last paragraph, which is the least interesting: I still stand committed to work with the governor in the best interest of the people of Hawaii.”