After taking a few days off last week ”to rest and re-energize,” beleaguered state Department of Health director Bruce Anderson is back on the job today.
Janice Okubo, Health Department spokeswoman, said today in an email that Anderson’s status as director has not changed.
“Bruce Anderson is back at work after he chose to take a few days to rest and re-energize — he has been working non-stop since the start of the pandemic,” Okubo said. “All state employees accrue paid vacation and sick leave which they request to use at their own discretion and upon approval.”
U.S. Rep Tulsi Gabbard has led the charge to fire Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park since April, mostly due to what she said are serious shortcomings in contact tracing, testing and isolation.
Gabbard renewed calls to fire the pair Tuesday following a grievance filed by the Hawaii Government Employees Association alleging that there were only 15 epidemiological specialists on Oahu and three on the neighbor islands to perform contact tracing for thousands of potential COVID-19 cases.
Okubo said 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,” she said in an email.
On Friday, Gabbard held a news conference with whistle blower Jennifer Smith, an epidemiological specialist/influenza surveillance and response coordinator at the Health Department. Smith alleged there were actually fewer than 10 contact tracers working on Oahu.
On Wednesday, department officials said they had about 100 contact tracers and are expanding that number.
The department did not immediately respond to the Star-Advertiser’s request today for an updated count.
National recommendations for contact tracers vary, but based on population counts some experts have estimated that Hawaii should have between 420 and 564 contact tracers responding to the pandemic.
The department provided the Honolulu Star-Advertiser with an an emailed response from Anderson regarding the HGEA grievance.
“The Department of Health recognizes that accurate, timely information is critical for decision-making and to protect the health and well being of Hawaii’s teachers, staff and students. Whenever a confirmed positive COVID-19 case is reported to the Department of Health, our team of disease investigators immediately steps into action,” Anderson said. “This includes notification of those who have been in close contact with those who are positive and at risk for contracting the disease to ensure they are appropriately tested or quarantined. It is important to note the Department of Health has ranked school-related cases as a high priority for expedited follow-up investigations.”
Anderson said the department makes notifications to close contacts on a daily basis, but these are not public notifications.
“We have followed the protocols of other states by not disclosing specific, identifiable information to protect the privacy of individuals who are COVID-19 positive. In the event we cannot identify close contacts or a person who tests positive is unwilling to disclose this information, we will make an exception and publicly announce cases to alert the public about the potential risk,” he said “We hope this provides some clarity and alleviates the concerns raised by the union.”
Park is still leading the state’s epidemiological efforts. However, Okubo said Dr. Emily Roberson was hired on July 16 to lead the Health Department’s Disease Investigation Branch, including its contact tracing program.
Roberson is automating efforts, standing up a call center with support from outside agencies, and adding real-time monitoring and rapid-cycle evaluation to improve the branch’s efficiency, reach and effectiveness, Okubo said.
Health Department Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu also is assisting the division and providing oversight as their deputy director of health resources, she said.
Dr. Scott Miscovich, the president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaii, who is running COVID testing sites, said the changes aren’t enough.
Miscovich said shortfalls in contract tracing are evident at his testing sites, where Sunday there were there were at least 25 Oahu Community Correctional Center guards getting tested at the Kakaako site.
Miscovich opined that the guards would have been tested within 24 hours of the outbreak if DOH had an effective contact tracing program.
“Hands down Anderson and Park have to be removed,” said Miscovich, who has been one of the department’s most vocal critics. “The changes that they made aren’t adequate. There needs to be a complete leadership change at DOH.”