Governor Replaces Head Of Contact Tracing After Program Deficiencies Emerge

Aug 14, 2020

The state Department of Health is working to increase contact tracing after Gov. David Ige put a new person in charge of the effort following mounting criticism of the program.

Dr. Emily Roberson, a public health expert from Hawaii Pacific University, now heads the disease investigation branch that oversees contact tracing. 

Roberson will report to Health Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu.

Contact tracing had been supervised by state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park, whose resistance to hiring more contact tracers and accepting help from other agencies had drawn growing criticism, including from Lt. Gov. Josh Green who called for her replacement.

A surprise visit last week to the health department by state senators, and media reporting, including by HPR, revealed contact tracers toiled in cramped quarters, were overwhelmed by the workload and prioritized cases, meaning some people who tested positive and their close contacts were never contacted.

Neither Park nor Health Director Bruce Anderson were in attendance at the governor's press conference yesterday when Ige discussed Roberson's appointment.

Tomiyasu said Park still remains a "very vital part of the Department of Health" in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak.

Many states across the country have given up on contact tracing after seeing their case numbers balloon out of control. Anderson has said that could be an undesirable possibility in Hawaii.

However, Ige said although the number of new daily cases have surged into the 300s, it’s not too late for contact tracing to work.

Tomiyasu said there is always room for improvement and listed the changes the department has started to implement. 

“Today on Oahu there are 76 individuals working on contact tracing and investigation. Nine additional staff provide supervision and other support. Fifteen additional contact tracers and case investigation staff will be working this weekend on Oahu to provide some relief...This makes a total of 100 staff working on Oahu to investigate these cases this week,” she said.

“National Guardsmen and women have provided additional personnel. This consists of a total of ... 21 full-time individuals, as well as several additional support and coordination staff... . In addition, we are onboarding approximately 20 new contact tracers hired through the UH training program with another 20 beginning the onboarding process next week.”

Space was one of the roadblocks Park had cited for why the department could not greatly scale up the contact tracing program.

Lawmakers and health care experts urged the department to use the Hawaii Convention Center for contact tracing, which it has now done. 

Ige is expected to release more information about the contact tracing program today.