Hawaii’s head of contact tracing returns as cases increase

HONOLULU — The head of Hawaii’s coronavirus contact tracing program has returned to work after going on leave earlier in the week because of department confusion over the chain of command.

Dr. Emily Roberson resumed her position as disease investigation branch chief with the state Department of Health on Friday, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. Roberson was hired in July to lead the contract tracing program, an effort that had garnered criticism as COVID-19 cases increased in recent months.

Roberson’s return came a day after Dr. Sarah Park, the state’s epidemiologist, announced she was going on paid leave and the same week Democratic Gov. David Ige announced Health Director Bruce Anderson’s retirement.

In Roberson’s request for leave Wednesday, she said there was confusion regarding whose authority and which directives she should follow in regard to the contract tracing program.

“These issues need to be worked out by DOH leadership before I can effectively perform my job duties,” Roberson said. She added that she wanted to “avoid making any unintentional missteps that could inadvertently compromise the COVID-19 response.”

Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said Friday that Roberson is back on the job “to work on increasing the efficiency, capacity, reach and effectiveness of disease investigation as the branch chief.”

Health officials also reported 271 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and two deaths on Friday, increasing the statewide totals to 9,473 cases and 81 deaths.

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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