A report from Hawaii’s state auditor’s office says Department of Health officials stonewalled them while they attempted to get answers about the government’s coronavirus contact tracing program.
The report, which was released Wednesday, says the auditor’s office “encountered barriers, delays, and ultimately were denied access to those responsible for leading the department’s contact tracing.”
The report says Health Director Bruce Anderson spoke with auditors, but he would not answer specific questions about contact tracing and deferred those inquiries to other Department of Health chiefs. Those people, including the heads of the outbreak control and disease investigation departments, did not contact auditors.
Requests for comment from the Department of Health and Anderson were not immediately returned.
At one point, the report says, there was a meeting scheduled with the head of the disease investigation branch. The agency was instructed to include the attorney general on emails regarding the meeting, and at the last minute the meeting was canceled. The governor’s office followed up to assert that the meeting could not go forward.
“While we understand DOH staff are busy, especially those working to improve the department’s contact tracing approach, we expected the department’s full and timely cooperation,” the report says. “We did not expect the Attorney General or the Governor’s office to involve themselves in our attempt to report about DOH’s approach to contact tracing.”
Additionally, the report says, the Department of Health did not release documents on its policies and procedures for contact tracing, despite multiple requests.
A request for comment from Gov. David Ige’s office was not immediately returned.
State Auditor Les Kondo said the intent of the report was to provide the public, which he said sometimes receives contradictory and confusing information about contact tracing, with a clearer picture of what the state is doing and how everyone can help “stem the flow” of the infection.
“To not allow us access to information, to talk to people — to me that was not acceptable, it was counterproductive and it shouldn’t happen,” Kondo said. “We didn’t get any response.”
And while his department usually has more time to conduct standard audits, Kondo said the urgency of Hawaii’s coronavirus surge made getting the information quickly even more important.
“This is not a normal situation, we don’t do these reports in normal situations,” Kondo added. “We’re all in a different time, we’re all scrambling to do different things to kind of do our part in this whole process, but right now … transparency, complete accurate information, it’s absolutely critical.”
And he worries about the public’s faith in the state right now.
“The public trust in the department and what the state more generally is doing, it’s not good, it’s been eroded and the lack of information … is not going to help rebuild that trust, and that’s really important in these times.”
For months, Hawaii had among the lowest infection rates of COVID-19 positive test results in the nation. But after restrictions eased ahead of summer holidays, which spurred large gatherings on beaches and elsewhere in the islands, Hawaii saw an alarming spike in positive test results.
On Wednesday, new data from the previous 24 hours showed more than 10% of people tested for COVID-19 had the disease.
Oahu, where the vast majority of new coronavirus cases are being reported, went back to a stay-at-home order Thursday as officials try to conduct 60,000 coronavirus tests.
The federal government will help local officials test about 5,000 people daily for two weeks.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams noted during a news conference with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell that Hawaii had previously enjoyed a 5% or lower positivity rate. Adams warned a rate above 10% could overwhelm the health care system.
State Epidemiologist Sarah Park had overseen the contact tracing program. But earlier this month, the Department of Health hired a new official to run the program after calls for Park’s removal.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Lt. Gov. Josh Green called for Park to be removed from management of the contact tracing program. Gabbard also asked for Anderson’s removal for what she called “gross negligence” in the pandemic response, including failing to hire a sufficient number of contact tracers.
Several legislators expressed displeasure with the Health Department’s apparent unwillingness to accept offers from the University of Hawaii, private Hawaii universities, the National Guard and the U.S. Department of Defense to provide additional trained tracers, including some at no cost.
“I just hope the Health Department will be more open to accepting help,” state House Speaker Scott Saiki said earlier this month.