New Hawaii health official will lead virus contact tracing

HONOLULU — The Hawaii Department of Health says it has hired a new official to oversee the state’s maligned coronavirus contact tracing program.

The Honolulu Star Advertiser reported Thursday that Dr. Emily Roberson was hired on July 16 to lead the department’s Disease Investigation Branch.

Since she was hired, Roberson has been “reorganizing and re-envisioning” the efficiency and capacity of the branch, health department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said in an email Wednesday.

There should be more than 100 contact tracers throughout the state by the end of the week, including 18 team leaders from the Hawaii National Guard and about 20 tracers hired through a University of Hawaii training program, Okubo said.

The announcement follows a recent increase in Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases and calls for the removal of state Health Director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park.

Park has overseen the program investigating contacts that people infected with the coronavirus have had with other community members.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Josh Green called for Park to be removed from management of the contact tracing program. Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also called for Park and Anderson to be removed for what she called “gross negligence” in the pandemic response, including failing to hire a sufficient number of contact tracers.

Green said he wants to employ at least 400 to 500 contact tracers.

Park and Anderson have taken action based on “sound national guidance” while working within constraints, Okubo said.

“They have been able to navigate this pandemic and helped us achieve many positive milestones that many have forgotten,” Okubo said.

Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki were among the state legislators who expressed frustration Wednesday with the health department’s pandemic response, but did not join the calls to remove Anderson or Park.

Several legislators said there should be new leadership for the tracing program. Some expressed displeasure with the department’s apparent unwillingness to accept offers from the University of Hawaii, private Hawaii universities, the National Guard and the U.S. Department of Defense to provide additional trained tracers, including some at no cost.

“I just hope the health department will be more open to accepting help,” Saiki said.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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