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Emily Roberson resigns as head of Hawaii’s COVID-19 contact tracing program

  • STAR-ADVERTISER
                                Dr. Emily Roberson stood in the room where contact tracers worked at the Hawai’i Convention Center on Sept. 11, 2020. Roberson, who was hired in July to oversee the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 contact tracing program and restore public trust in state government efforts to bring the pandemic under control, has resigned.

    STAR-ADVERTISER

    Dr. Emily Roberson stood in the room where contact tracers worked at the Hawai’i Convention Center on Sept. 11, 2020. Roberson, who was hired in July to oversee the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 contact tracing program and restore public trust in state government efforts to bring the pandemic under control, has resigned.

Dr. Emily Roberson, who was hired in July to oversee the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 contact tracing program and restore public trust in state government efforts to bring the pandemic under control, has resigned.

Roberson was serving as the department’s Disease Investigation Branch chief. The DOH would not disclose the reason for her April 1 departure, with spokeswoman Janice Okubo saying today the matter “is a personnel issue and considered confidential.”

“Temporary assignments have been made to ensure that the duties of her position are performed as contact tracing efforts continue,” Okubo said in a statement.

Roberson told Civil Beat Tuesday that she resigned for unspecified “personal reasons.”

Roberson took over the contact tracing program during a time of turmoil in the state’s response to the exploding coronavirus pandemic. Internal conflict within the DOH boiled over when whistleblower Jennifer Smith spoke out about understaffing in the program and criticized department leaders for fostering a “toxic” culture of fear that impeded the work of investigators trying to stop the spread of disease.

Smith, an epidemiologist, was suspended with pay Sept. 4 after airing her concerns.

Growing criticism of state actions in the first months of the pandemic centered around Health Director Bruce Anderson and Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist blamed for failing to build a robust COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program. Both had spoken publicly against mass testing and the need to get major help from outside the agency for contact tracing.

Roberson also voiced concerns about the DOH leadership, taking leave Sept. 2. In an email to her superiors, she cited confusion over who was in charge of the contact tracing program and which directives to follow.

Park was placed on paid leave Sept. 4 and left the agency at the end of year, while Anderson retired in September. Dr. Libby Char, an emergency room physician, was tapped to take over as interim DOH director effective Sept. 16.

Meanwhile, Roberson returned to her job two days later after Park left, saying she was focused on revamping the overwhelmed contact tracing program.

Okubo said there are currently 219 contact tracers working on Oahu and 88 working on the neighbor islands.

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