Dr. Sarah Park, the embattled state epidemiologist criticized for her failure to build a robust COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program, has been put on paid leave as of today.
Park’s departure comes just four days after her boss, Bruce Anderson, said he is leaving as the director of the state Department of Health. On Wednesday another top Health Department official, Dr. Emily Roberson, who was recently hired to take over the contact tracing effort, asked to be placed on leave.
The turmoil at the top of the state’s public health organization reflects deep frustration with Hawaii’s inability to halt the spread of the coronavirus in the past two months. The spike in cases led to a second stay-at-home order for Oahu that has caused untold economic damage.
“The removal of both Bruce Anderson and Sarah Park was an essential move to begin a new process at the executive level in the state of Hawaii,” said Dr. Scott Miscovich, president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaii. “It is clear that aggressive use of testing, contact tracing and quarantine is the only way our state will be able to follow the best practice leads of the rest of the world and begin to stop the surge of COVID in Hawaii and the numerous deaths that are avoidable.”
Hawaii has had 79 fatalities caused by COVID-19 and 9,202 cases, most coming in the past two months.
In a statement issued late Thursday, the Health Department said, “Dr. Sarah Park is taking a leave of absence from her work at the Department of Health. During her leave, Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu is in full charge of all disease investigation and immunization activities under the Disease Outbreak Control Division. The Department of Health is continuing to fully execute disease investigation and immunization activities for the state. This includes an accelerated expansion of contact tracing capacity. All COVID-19 response activities are proceeding and continue to be reinforced by the entire Department of Health, National Guard, Counties, and federal and community partners.”
The failure of the state to build a strong testing and tracing infrastructure in the months when new daily coronavirus cases were in the single digits has led others to try to fill the void.
The city now plans to hire 250 to 500 contact tracers, and even private organizations are hiring contact tracers.
On Thursday a nonprofit that advocates for senior citizens began legal action to force the state to increase the number of contact tracers and to require the Department of Health to provide translation services.
Seeking answers on contact tracing
The Kokua Council for Senior Citizens sent a demand letter Wednesday to the state Department of Health, threatening legal action if the agency doesn’t furnish information by 10 a.m. Tuesday that the state’s contract tracing program is meeting its legal obligations.
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.
The letter, penned by attorney Lance Collins, says “the state has a legal obligation to provide contact tracing and relevant health information in minority languages to limited English-proficient individuals at the levels established by statute. From the available information to Kokua Council, the state has failed to act contrary to its legal obligation to do so.”
Gov. David Ige and state Attorney General Clare Connors were copied on the demand letter, which was sent to Anderson, who is retiring on Sept. 15. Dr. Libby Char, an emergency room physician, takes over Sept. 16 as interim DOH director.
Collins’ legal demand asks DOH to publicly state how many contact tracers are currently employed, how many will be hired and when they will be hired as well as how many bilingual contact tracers or interpreters are currently employed as well as will be hired and when they will be hired.
The state had not responded to Collins’ letter by close of business Thursday, Collins said in an email.
If they don’t meet the Tuesday deadline, Collins said, “We will file a lawsuit in court to get the information and to have the court order them to follow the law.”
It’s happened before. About four years ago, Kokua Council successfully sued the DOH because the department was not posting inspection reports of state-licensed care facilities online as had been required by a 2013 law.
This time around, Kokua Council is alleging that DOH has failed to ensure that there are sufficient contact tracers or interpreters.
“This is particularly alarming because it appears that immigrant communities with significantly higher numbers of limited English proficient individuals from throughout the Pacific and Asia have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infections,” Collins said.
Pacific Islanders make up only 4% of the state’s population, but on Aug. 28, the most recent report available, they represented 31% of Hawaii’s coronavirus cases. The group with the next highest COVID-19 counts in Hawaii was Filipinos, which represented 18% of the cases.
In the letter, Collins says Hawaii’s contact tracing effort is well below the National Association of County and City Health Officials recommendation that suggests Hawaii should have 420 contact tracers during the COVID-19 emergency and 210 contact tracers during ordinary non-emergency times.
DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said Wednesday the state now has 212 contact tracers and “additional contact tracers are being employed with support from the City and County of Honolulu.”
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said during an Aug. 27 media briefing that DOH originally had turned down the city’s offer to assist in expanding contact tracers, but had recently accepted assistance. Caldwell said so far the state has given the city permission to hire 10 contract tracers to trace city employees who have tested positive and those will be monitored by three city doctors.
Getting permission is the next step
He said the next step is to get permission from the state to allow the city to hire a minimum of 250 contact tracers and possibly up to 500 to trace city residents.
On Wednesday, Alex Zannes, Caldwell’s spokesman, could not provide the Star-Advertiser with the city’s count of active contact tracers.
Meanwhile, some private companies are starting their own contact tracing programs. The Queen’s Medical Center is running advertisements to hire temporary contact tracers through June 2021. According to the job description, the contact tracers will reach out to all persons who have “come into close contact with COVID-19 infected healthcare personnel, patients, and staff to provide them with support, information and guidance to interrupt ongoing transmission and reduce spread.”
Altres is running an advertisement seeking an HR Admin Assistant to join an unspecified company’s internal contact tracing team, which will handle internal cases of the virus.
Another unspecified local company, with multiple subsidiaries, is advertising on Craigslist for its own internal contact tracer for employees who test positive for COVID-19. The worker would assist the human resources department with making calls to employees who have tested positive and fulfilling reporting guidelines, including finding out who they have been in contact with and explaining company policy.