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Editorial: Stronger actions from new leaders

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It has not been a successful month for Hawaii’s particular battle against the coronavirus, so a changing of the guard among those directing the charge is a necessary reset that will benefit the public.

But in order for Monday’s announced changes at the state departments of Health (DOH) and of Public Safety (DPS) to produce more than a shuffling of deck chairs, Gov. David Ige will need to ride herd on the newly appointed replacements to ensure that state initiatives don’t bog down in bureaucracy.

Ige announced the retirements of DOH Director Bruce Anderson and DPS director Nolan Espinda, both of whom have come under fire during the current spike in COVID-19 cases. This backslide has been met with dismay from residents who, wrongly, had let their guard down following Hawaii’s early success in managing the pandemic.

The governor made a point of saying the retirements were not requested by him. In an appearance on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast, Ige added that he “appreciated their commitment to public service.”

But these heads of two departments that have stumbled in the current crisis have, in fact, lost the community’s confidence that its government has the right sense of urgency about the task.

For one, there have been worrying outbreaks at Oahu Community Correctional Center, even with the reduction in the facility’s population to reduce the transmission risk.

That criticism came from elected representatives, too. State Sen. Clarence Nishihara, who chairs the overseeing Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, said in a written statement that he had “lost faith” in the leadership’s ability to curb the spread.

“This lack of leadership and inability to guide the department through this pandemic has put us in the difficult situation that we find ourselves in today,” he said.

It was Anderson, however, who came under the most heat. The department’s halting approach to contact tracing brought Hawaii attention no state ever wants.

The lag in spending federal funds allotted for that purpose has drawn complaints from congressional leaders and, over the weekend, national media chronicled the state’s problems, too.

Further, state Auditor Les Kondo has faulted the department for failing to provide timely information about the contact tracing effort. Ige countered that report by saying DOH was working on the new contact tracing facility and had sought more time to reply.

That, unfortunately, exemplifies one problem in the administration’s response. Where the public needs and deserves timely, honest status reports, Ige is not forthcoming with clear answers. In the case of contact tracing: How many people have been hired and when will a permanent complement be on the job? What’s the reason for the delay? It became anyone’s guess.

Espinda will be on leave until his retirement goes into effect Oct. 1. In his stead, the governor has named Maria Cook, the deputy director for administration, to have “signatory authority” at DPS. Ige will need to do more — to make sure sanitation, protective equipment and distancing protocols are robustly carried out throughout the department and prisons, from top to bottom, until he names an interim director, and after.

Dr. Libby Char, an emergency medicine specialist, will be DOH’s interim director; she now chairs the state’s Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee.

In addition to new names on the letterhead, there must be a new, less bureaucratic culture.

“We are asking virtually every state employee to change what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,” Ige said Monday.

The public can only hope that’s true, because change for the better is urgently needed at this critical juncture.

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