HONOLULU — Hawaii’s embattled epidemiologist is taking a leave of absence after the new head of the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing program requested time off, citing issues with the chain of command among health officials.
Dr. Sarah Park is taking paid leave, the state Department of Health said in a statement late Thursday, without specifying how long she’ll be away and why.
Her departure comes in the same week that Gov. David Ige announced that Health Director Dr. Bruce Anderson would be retiring and Dr. Emily Roberson, hired in July to lead the contact tracing program, asked for a leave for an unspecified amount of time.
“Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu is in full charge of all disease investigation and immunization activities under the Disease Outbreak Control Division,” the department’s statement said.
Contact tracers who work to locate those who have come into close contact with people who tested positive for the coronavirus are considered an important piece in the effort to slow the spread of the illness.
Roberson could not be reached for comment, but an email to Tomiyasu and Deputy Director Keith Kawaoka suggested she believes an internal struggle has hampered the tracing program, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
“It is clear that there is significant confusion regarding whose authority and which directives I should be following with regards to COVID-19 contact tracing in Hawaii,” Roberson wrote. “These issues need to be worked out by DOH leadership before I can effectively perform my job duties.”
Roberson’s email said she wanted to take leave to “avoid making any unintentional missteps that could inadvertently compromise the COVID-19 response.”
Roberson’s placement as the head of contact tracing came amidst an increase in Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases and calls for the removal Park by lawmakers including Democratic Lt. Gov. Josh Green and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, both Democrats.
Park couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
“Dr. Park had a tough job. I’m not sure if anybody would really want to be in her situation because she had to deal with a crisis,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki told Hawaii News Now.
Saiki had also called for Park’s immediate removal. He is now calling on Ige to appoint a leader the public can trust.
“It’s really important for the governor to take charge of the situation now. He needs to reset and put people in charge who will help correct all of the deficiencies,” Saiki said.
The turmoil at the health department comes amid an alarming spike in positive cases in Hawaii, mostly on Oahu, with weeks of triple-digit new cases.
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.