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Hawaii’s new head of contact tracing, Emily Roberson, returns as COVID cases surge

  • GEORGE F. LEE / AUG. 19
                                Emily Roberson was back on the job Friday as head of Hawaii’s COVID-19 contact tracing program after going on leave earlier in the week. Above, she toured the contact tracing center at the Hawai‘i Convention Center last month with Health Director Bruce Anderson, left.

    GEORGE F. LEE / AUG. 19

    Emily Roberson was back on the job Friday as head of Hawaii’s COVID-19 contact tracing program after going on leave earlier in the week. Above, she toured the contact tracing center at the Hawai‘i Convention Center last month with Health Director Bruce Anderson, left.

  • GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                On Friday, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he’s still deciding on extending the 14-day stay-at-home order, which ends on Thursday. Above, Honolulu police were making spot checks at Waikiki Beach while enforcing the emergency COVID-19 rules on Thursday.

    GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

    On Friday, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he’s still deciding on extending the 14-day stay-at-home order, which ends on Thursday. Above, Honolulu police were making spot checks at Waikiki Beach while enforcing the emergency COVID-19 rules on Thursday.

The new head of Hawaii’s COVID-19 contact tracing program was back on the job Friday after going on leave earlier in the week.

Disease Investigation Branch Chief Emily Roberson resumed her position with the state Department of Health a day after it was announced that state Epidemiologist Sarah Park was going on paid leave, effective Friday.

Roberson, in her request for leave Wednesday, said there was confusion regarding whose authority and which directives she should follow in regard to the contact tracing program.

“These issues need to be worked out by DOH leadership before I can effectively perform my job duties,” Roberson said in an email to her bosses. She added that she wanted to “avoid making any unintentional missteps that could inadvertently compromise the COVID-19 response.”

In an email Friday, DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said Roberson is back on the job “to work on increasing the efficiency, capacity, reach and effectiveness of disease investigation as the branch chief.”

Roberson was hired July 16 to lead a branch that oversees the state’s contact tracing program, an effort that had come under growing criticism as the virus exploded over the past couple of months.

The leadership shake-up at the Department of Health began Monday with the announcement that Director Bruce Anderson is retiring Sept. 15. Dr. Libby Char, an emergency room physician, has been tapped to take over as interim DOH director effective Sept. 16.

Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu has taken over as the interim head of the Disease Outbreak Control Division, the section Park was overseeing.

That division includes more than 30 full-time positions working to control and prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the state, Okubo said. They are supported by roughly 200 contact tracers, including 30 members of the National Guard, 70 DOH public health nurses, more than 50 other DOH staff members and more than 50 other trained volunteers, she said.

Health officials on Friday also reported two new coronavirus-related deaths and 271 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide totals since the beginning of the pandemic to 81 fatalities and 9,473 cases.

Bolstered by about 6,000 new surge testing results, Friday’s positivity rate dropped to 3.5%. Of the 16,384 surge testing results to come in so far, only 104 have been positive for the virus.

The fatalities were Oahu residents, a man in his 60s and a woman in her 80s. Both had underlying health conditions and were hospitalized with COVID-19 before they died. No other information was provided.

Friday’s tally does not include three deaths at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo, which are pending verification by the DOH.

Hilo Medical Center on Friday reported a total of six deaths this week at the veterans home as part of an outbreak in which 47 residents and 18 employees have tested positive for the virus.

On Oahu, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Friday he’s still trying to determine whether to extend his 14-day stay-at-home order, which ends on Thursday.

In a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Caldwell said he and his staff continue to evaluate daily the status of the health care system, contact tracing capabilities, test positivity rate, case counts, and other factors such as patterns of transmission, to determine the best course of action.

“However, at a rate of over 200 cases per day, or 800 positive cases every four days, there will continue to be significant strain both on contact tracing and isolation efforts, as well as hospital capacity,” the mayor said.

Caldwell added that considering the two- to 14-day incubation period of the virus, it will take one to two weeks before the benefits of the stay-at-home order kick in. Additionally, more cases could emerge from the surge testing ongoing on Oahu, he said.

“This is why we are carefully discussing with our partners in health care and public health to evaluate multiple factors to determine whether or not to extend the stay-at-home order,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of community leaders, led by Honolulu Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi, offered some advice for the mayor during a virtual news conference Friday afternoon:

Base your decisions on sound scientific evidence. Do less damage to the economy by allowing businesses to reopen with COVID-19 protocols in place. And open trails, beaches and open spaces again for the mental and physical health of the community.

“This latest shutdown here on Oahu is going to kill a lot of businesses,” said Tina Yamaki of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii. “Whether it’s two weeks, one month, six weeks, three months, we don’t know exactly how long it’s going to be because we always know they tell us one thing and they lengthen it again.”

Victor Lim of the Hawaii Restaurant Association said the unknowns are wreaking havoc with lives of both owners and employees.

“A lot of restaurants are going to be closing down by the end of this year,” he said.

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