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Editorial: Leadership must be strong, clear

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On the heels of high hopes that the state’s troubled contact-tracing program would soon be set right under fresh leadership, the new hire’s request for leave, citing chain-of-command confusion, is frustrating.

In mid-August, Department of Health (DOH) officials said its Disease Investigation Branch chief, Emily Roberson, had hit the ground running — reorganizing and re-envisioning contact tracing efficiency, capacity and reach.

Tasked with swiftly making significant program upgrades, she was expected to hustle. But on Wednesday, less than a week after giving state lawmakers an encouraging look at new COVID-19 contact-tracing facilities at the Hawaii Convention Center, Roberson was on leave.

In an email, first published by Honolulu Civil Beat, she wrote: “There is significant confusion regarding whose authority and which directives I should be following with regards to COVID-19 contact tracing,” which is a key component, along with testing and isolation, in the strategy for crushing outbreaks.

In the interest of avoiding missteps, Roberson rightly advised that clarity is needed to effectively tackle the demands of her job. This much-needed communication on chain of command should be delivered by the state’s top manager, Gov. David Ige. To successfully cope with the ongoing pandemic, the governor must get everyone in the Heath Department on the same page.

Clear, concise and sensible directives are imperative to unify virus-fighting efforts, and build trust in affected workplaces as well as in the general public. Invariably, vague marching orders further muddle matters. Given that COVID-19 contact tracing will be needed as a key public health component even after a vaccine is available, the governor must stake out DOH course correction as a priority.

Here and elsewhere, amid surging case counts, contact tracing efforts — which start with contacting an infected person for information about their case as well as about other people they may have exposed to COVID-19 — can quickly become overwhelmed. What’s more, there’s no guarantee of cooperation.

During a period spanning June and most of July, New York City’s fledgling Test and Trace Corps reportedly reached nearly two-thirds of the almost 20,000 people who tested positive, but less than half — 42% — of infected people provided the tracers even a single contact they may have exposed. Hawaii does not release this sort of detail, but should consider adding it to public data as a means to better outline how many people the state is actually reaching.

Health Department Director Bruce Anderson — retiring this month amid criticism of DOH’s handling of the pandemic — and state Epidemiologist Sarah Park have pointed out that contact tracing, even with a substantial expansion of the state’s team, is no panacea.

Even so, the DOH must employ a long-term robust and flexible workforce dedicated to optimizing this useful tool. And Ige should empower the contact-tracing program’s new leader to call the shots — shouldering responsibility for decision-making, including the spending of COVID-19 relief money.

The public’s patience and confidence are wearing thin, after months of collapsed state leadership in Ige’s Cabinet and the administration’s low level of transparency. Among the latest complaints is a demand letter from the Kokua Council for Senior Citizens, sent to Anderson on Wednesday, that calls for release of more contact-tracing specifics, including hiring plan details such as the expected number of bilingual tracers and interpreters.

Hawaii must move onto a better path to restore public health and with it, the economy. It is time to break up bureaucratic bottlenecks, clear away confusion and obstacles, and step up candor in the COVID-19 battle.

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