The embattled state epidemiologist blamed for slowing Hawaii’s coronavirus response has quietly left the Department of Health.
Dr. Sarah Park’s last day was Dec. 31, according to DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo, who did not give a reason for the separation. Park couldn’t be reached for comment.
Park had been placed on paid leave Sept. 4, just four days after Health Director Bruce Anderson announced he would retire. Both spoke publicly against mass testing and the need to get major help from outside the agency for contact tracing, sparking criticism of their leadership.
They were widely faulted for failing to build a robust COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program, and refusing help to bolster staffing from the Hawaii National Guard and testing by the City and County of Honolulu.
DOH whistleblower Jennifer Smith, the epidemiologist who was suspended with pay Sept. 4 after speaking out about the understaffing of contact tracers, has criticized the department for fostering a “toxic” culture of fear that impeded the work of investigators trying to stop the spread of the disease.
Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, will continue in that role while the department searches for a permanent head of the DOH Disease Outbreak Control Division.
Meanwhile, health officials reported 90 new infections as of Saturday, the latest data available, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 25,943 cases. Hawaii’s coronavirus death toll remains at 410 with no new fatalities reported.
A total of 151,558 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the islands since December, and the program is expected to speed up in the coming weeks as more shots become available, Lt. Gov. Josh Green told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii.
“We’re now accelerating to the point where we can do over 10,000 shots a day, over 50,000 a week, and you can see how that will pile up really nicely,” he said, adding that the state will have 243,800 doses here by midweek. “We’re rocketing upward. By the end of February, I expect we’ll have 350,000 doses given.”
What’s more, he predicts that most of the residents who want the vaccine could be immunized by the summer.
“If we play our cards right and these additional vaccines come online … by midsummer everyone will have been offered a vaccine if they would like one, and much sooner … for anyone who’s kind of in the essential workforce,” Green said. “It’s going to be a spring of vaccinations for people. It comes to all of mankind’s benefit that this is what everyone’s focused on because we can stop COVID by the summer with the vaccination process.”
Health officials are racing to vaccinate the public as COVID-19 mutates into more transmissible variants.
“All of the variants appear to be blocked by the vaccine, although the South African variant, which we have not had cases of, may be more problematic, so it’s incumbent upon us — for those who believe in vaccines — to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” he added. “It’s a good idea to get it, because we don’t know when these variants are going to land in Hawaii. They eventually will be in every corner of the world on some level. This is a virus that over time is going to keep spreading across the globe in pockets.”