State Epidemiologist Takes Paid Leave, Latest In Health Dept. Departures

Sep 4, 2020

State Epidemiologist Sarah Park, once the head of Hawaii's testing and contacting tracing effort to battle the surging coronavirus, has taken paid leave, according to the state Department of Health.

The department said in a statement:

“Dr. Sarah Park is taking a leave of absence from her work at the Department of Health. During her leave, Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu is in full charge of all disease investigation and immunization activities under the Disease Outbreak Control Division.

"The Department of Health is continuing to fully execute disease investigation and immunization activities for the state. This includes an accelerated expansion of contact tracing capacity. All COVID-19 response activities are proceeding and continue to be reinforced by the entire Department of Health, National Guard, Counties, and federal and community partners.”

Park's departure follows the announcement this week that Emily Roberson, Gov. David Ige's appointee to take over contact tracing from Park, is taking leave. Roberson had stepped in to supervise contact tracing after disclosures that staff were overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the workload.

Roberson said she was leaving because of unclear lines of command. When senior leaders sort them out, she would return, she indicated. Media reports say Roberson felt Park interferred with her work, although the epidemiologist was removed from oversight of the failing contact tracing program.

Health Director Bruce Anderson, himself the target of criticism over the state's handling of the COVID crisis and inability to keep the case counts down, announced he will be retiring in mid-September. Ige said he did not ask for Anderson's resignation but had accepted it.

Park's leave follows calls for her to be fired, including from state House Speaker Scott Saiki and U.S. Tulsi Gabbard.

The Kokua Council for Senior Citizens, an advocacy group for the elderly, sent a demand letter to Amderson on Wednesday, insisting the health department strenghten its contact tracing staff. 

Lance Collins, writing on behalf of the council, noted the Hawaii Association of County and City Health Officials recommends 15 contact tracers for every 100,000 population. Based on that calculation, Hawaii should have 420 contact professions during the crisis.

A health department spokeswoman said by email that the department has 212 contact tracers, including 28 Hawaii National Guard members and 13 volunteers. Of the 212, 129 are on Oahu, where the surge of cases have reached triple digits for most of August and into September.

"The state has a legal obligation to conduct contact tracing to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. From the available information to Kokua Council, the state has failed to act contrary to its legal obligation to do so," Collins said in his letter.

He also cited state law that requires language interpretation and written translation for those with limited English proficiency so they can have access to services and programs.

"This is particularly alarming because it appears that immigrant communities with significantly higher numbers of limited English proficient individuals from throughout the Pacific and Asia have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infections and that the lack of information regarding what to do when one is infected has a high likelihood of significantly increasing the risk of further community spread of COVID-19," he said.

The council demanded the department follow the law and state its plan to hire contact tracers , including those who are bilingual. Collins said if the council doesn't hear back by Tuesday, it will pursue legal action.