A leave request Wednesday from the head of Hawaii’s COVID- 19 contact tracing program citing chain-of-command issues is reinvigorating calls to clean house at the state Department of Health.
Dr. Emily Roberson, who was hired July 16 to lead the Health Department’s Disease Investigation Branch, including its contact tracing program, requested to go on leave for an unspecified amount of time.
DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said in an email Wednesday that Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu will remain in charge of the contact tracing program while Roberson is on leave.
Contact tracers, the people hired to locate everyone who comes in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, are thought to be an important part of halting community spread.
Roberson could not be reached for comment. However, her email to DOH Deputy Directors Tomiyasu and Keith Kawaoka suggests the state is still struggling to stand up an effective contact tracing program. Roberson also sent a copy of her email to Dr. Libby Char, an emergency room physician, who takes over as interim DOH director effective Sept. 16.
“It is clear that there is significant confusion regarding whose authority and which directives I should be following with regards to COVID-19 contact tracing in Hawaii,” Roberson wrote in the email, which was first published by Honolulu Civil Beat. “These issues need to be worked out by DOH leadership before I can effectively perform my job duties.”
In Wednesday’s email, Roberson said she wanted to go on leave to “avoid making any unintentional missteps that could inadvertently compromise the COVID-19 response.”
She said she wanted to stay on leave until the “chain of command with regards to COVID-19 contract tracing efforts in Hawaii can be clarified by leadership.”
Roberson’s leave follows Monday’s announcement that DOH Director Bruce Anderson is retiring Sept. 15. Hawaii Gov. David Ige said he did not ask Anderson to leave, however, the change was largely supported in the community as a step toward restoring public confidence.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in April and again in August called for the firing of Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park for what she perceived as the botched handling of the state’s COVID-19 response, especially in regard to contact tracing. She wasn’t alone in her assertion.
Park is still on the job. She is no longer supposed to be leading contact tracing, but critics have been rumbling for weeks that she is still micromanaging those efforts. Now, some DOH detractors are saying Roberson’s latest concerns are proof that Park needs to go.
“I’m not comfortable with Sarah Park remaining on the job,” House Minority Leader Gene Ward (R-Hawaii Kai, Kalama Valley) said Wednesday. “The people that followed the Anderson and Park cabal lead us astray. They should have been stepping up testing and contact tracing. I recently went on a trip and I wasn’t even called.”
Park and Roberson could not be reached for comment.
Melvin Sakurai, a management consultant with Research Information Services, said he’s worried DOH’s problems are deeper than the shortcomings of two of its leaders and will take system-wide changes for Char, Roberson or any other leaders to make a difference.
“Dr. Roberson was supposed to be a hopeful change to bring in expertise and a sense of urgency for contact tracing and now she’s confronting the lines of authority and probably being countermanded,” Sakurai said. “Will Dr. Char be able to make a difference? Or is there something insidious there that needs to be changed and overcome? Something really bad seems to be going on.”
House Health Committee Chair Rep. John M. Mizuno (D, Kalihi-Kamehameha Heights) said he had high hopes after Roberson gave him and other state lawmakers a tour Friday of the Hawai‘i Convention Center’s new contact tracing facilities.
“We’ve been very frustrated but we thought we were turning a corner. It’s very concerning to hear that she’s going on administrative leave,” he said. “I’m considering calling an informational briefing. We need to address the reasons why she left.”
Sen. Rosalyn Baker (D, West Maui-South Maui), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health, said in an email she was “disappointed to learn that someone newly hired to head the important contact tracing program at the Department of Health now has chain of command concerns.”
Baker said contact tracing must be a daily priority and cannot be put off because DOH is undergoing leadership and organizational changes.
“We have to do both. I am confident that if we focus on the important public health tasks at hand, we can stop the spread and achieve healthy communities here,” she said.
Mizuno said DOH officials and Ige’s administration can’t keep “making excuses or retiring or taking administrative leave.”
“This is the time that they need to step up, but they haven’t done that.”
Ige’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
There’s been widespread criticism that DOH has failed to build up the state’s COVID-19 testing resources and its contact tracing capability. Anderson and Park were criticized for withholding, or not collecting, information on positive cases that could help the public understand how the disease is spreading.
U.S. Rep Anna Eshoo of California, chairwoman of the congressional subcommittee on health, even sent Ige a letter last month questioning the adequacy of DOH’s contact tracing and testing program. She also wanted an accounting of how Hawaii had spent the $50 million in federal coronavirus relief aid that was given to ensure “adequate resources to track, trace and respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Eshoo’s inquiry followed a surge in Hawaii COVID-19 cases and a grievance filed by the Hawaii Government Employees Association that alleged there were only 15 epidemiological specialists on Oahu and three on the neighbor islands to perform contact tracing for thousands of potential coronavirus cases.
Local politicians, including Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki, have expressed displeasure with DOH’s unwillingness to accept offers from the University of Hawaii, private universities, the Hawaii National Guard and Department of Defense to provide additional trained contact tracers, including some at no cost.
National recommendations vary, but based on population, it’s been suggested that Hawaii should have between 420 and 564 contact tracers.
“The Department of Health is continuing to expand its contact tracing program and currently has 212 contact tracers. Additional contact tracers are being employed with support from the City and County of Honolulu,” Okubo said Wednesday.