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Gov. David Ige, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi agree to leave Tier 3 in place for now

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                                <strong>Emily Roberson: </strong>
                                <em>The head of Hawaii’s COVID-19 contact tracing program resigned effective April 1 </em>


    Emily Roberson:

    The head of Hawaii’s COVID-19 contact tracing program resigned effective April 1

Honolulu will remain in Tier 3 of the city’s COVID-19 reopening framework for at least the next four weeks under an agreement between Mayor Rick Blangiardi and Gov. David Ige that will allow Oahu businesses and activities to maintain current levels of operation.

With Oahu’s coronavirus case counts rising in recent weeks — Wednesday’s seven-day average daily case count was 58 for the second week in a row — it appeared the island was headed back to the more restrictive Tier 2 at a time when the economy seems headed toward recovery.

Noting the “profound impact on our businesses, families and community,” Blangiardi said in a statement Wednesday that “we are focused on the broader definition of health and I believe moving back to Tier 2 at this point would have had a tremendous negative impact on the overall health and economic recovery, including the impacts on livelihoods, jobs and mental and emotional health.”

Earlier this week the mayor said he was “dead set” against moving back to Tier 2, given that COVID-19 hospitalizations are relatively low, vaccinations are rolling along and vaccine supplies are increasing — circumstances that did not exist when former Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the recovery framework in September.

The mayor also had asked Ige to loosen the criteria for Tier 3 to a seven-day average daily case count of 50 to 100, one of the current triggers for Tier 2, but Blangiardi spokesman Tim Sakahara said Wednesday the two agreed not to make any changes to the four-tier framework at this time.

Tier 3 permits social and outdoor recreational gatherings of up to 10 people, restaurants to seat 10 people at a table and gyms to operate at 50% capacity. Blangiardi earlier announced modified restrictions that allow bars to reopen under the same conditions as restaurants and extending the curfew until midnight. In addition, outdoor weddings with up to 100 people are permitted as long as COVID-19 precautions are observed, and youth outdoor sports may resume Monday, with adult outdoor league sports beginning April 19.

New infections

Statewide, 76 new COVID-19 infections were reported by the state Department of Health on Wednesday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 30,363 cases. There were no new coronavirus-related deaths as the statewide death toll remained at 467.

New cases include 51 on Oahu, 15 on Maui, five on Hawaii island, two on Kauai and three Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state, according to health officials. The statistics reflect the new cases reported to the department Monday.

Health officials also said that of the state’s total infection count, 1,345 cases were considered to be active, 18 more than the last tally. Oahu had 812 active cases; Maui, 368; Hawaii island, 154; Kauai, 10; and Lanai, one.

Of all the confirmed Hawaii infection cases, 2,023 have required hospitalization, with three new hospitalizations reported Wednesday. A total of 46 patients with the virus were in Hawaii hospitals as of Tuesday morning, with six in intensive care units and three on ventilators, according to the DOH.

As of Tuesday, 871,595 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Hawaii, according to preliminary data.

Roberson resigns

The Health Department also confirmed that Emily Roberson, who was hired in July to oversee its COVID-19 contact tracing program, had resigned her position as chief of the Disease Investigation Branch effective April 1. The department would not disclose the reason for her departure, with spokeswoman Janice Okubo saying Wednesday 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.”

She 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.

Roberson also voiced concerns about DOH leadership, taking leave Sept. 2 and citing confusion over who was in charge of the program and which directives to follow.

Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist blamed for failing to build a robust COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program, was placed on paid leave Sept. 4 and left DOH at the end of year, while DOH Director Dr. Bruce Anderson retired in September. Both had spoken publicly against mass testing and the need to get major help from outside the agency for contact tracing.

Roberson returned to her job after Park left.

Contact tracing teams track people with COVID-19, interviewing the infected, notifying people who have been in close contact with contagious cases and collecting valuable data. With Roberson in charge, and with help from the Hawaii National Guard, the program improved from a low of 59% of cases being reached by contact tracers the week of Aug. 30 to well over 80% of cases reached through the months of October, November and December, according to DOH data.

Additionally, 92% of COVID-19 cases were reached within two days, most in less than a day, the data shows.

The most current figures available show 68% of cases reached the week of Jan. 31.

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

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