When it comes to the Department of Health’s contact tracing program, the independent agency charged with holding other state agencies accountable has had little luck getting detailed information.

That’s the overarching conclusion of a 26-page report by Les Kondo, the Hawaii State Auditor, who on Wednesday issued the first of a series of “COVID-19 Special Projects.”

The auditor’s report follows a stream of criticism from state lawmakers, local officials, the lieutenant governor and a member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, who have criticized state Health Director Bruce Anderson and the head of the Disease Outbreak Control Division, Dr. Sarah Park, for the state’s response to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

State Auditor Les Kondo speaks about the first HART Audit.
Hawaii State Auditor Les Kondo criticized the Department of Health for a lack of transparency. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Critics have specifically focused on an apparent failure to hire enough contact tracers to deal with a surge of new COVID-19 cases, which was expected to come as Hawaii reopened its economy after a shutdown in the spring.

Anderson specifically turned away offers of help in early May, when Hawaii had only one to two new cases per day and was preparing to open the local economy – with an eye on opening to tourists. Despite calls to hire a small army of contact tracers to stay ahead of the virus, Anderson said the department would be able to “surge from within” and had enough contact tracers to keep the virus contained in discrete clusters.

That didn’t happen, and now Hawaii has pervasive uncontrolled community spread on Oahu. There were 277 new cases reported statewide on Wednesday, 245 on Oahu.

With the Department of Health facing blame for the spread, the auditor’s office set out to “filter through the varying, confusing, and often conflicting information and to provide a clearer, objective, and up-to-date understanding of the department’s efforts.“

But, the report says, “instead of cooperation and assistance, we encountered barriers, delays, and ultimately were denied access to those responsible for leading the department’s contact tracing: the Disease Outbreak Control Division (DOCD) Chief and the Disease Investigation Branch (DIB) Chief, who recently took over that task.”

The auditor is the latest in a line of public officials trying to get information about the department generally, and its contact tracing effort in particular. Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki requested more data from Anderson on Aug. 6 and still hasn’t gotten the information nearly three weeks later.

The Health Department’s spokeswoman, Janice Okubo, declined to answer questions about the report, saying the department needed more time to review it.

In an interview, Kondo said he understood the department was pressed for time, but said there was no excuse for refusing to provide basic information to an independent public agency that was trying to provide the public an objective explanation of contact tracing in general and the state’s efforts in particular. Kondo said the department needs to be more open to counter what he called an erosion of public confidence.

Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Anderson gestures during a press conference announcing a spike of 41 new cases of COVID-19. July 7, 2020
Health Director Bruce Anderson previously vowed Hawaii would have enough contact tracers to contain the virus in clusters when cases surged. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“The lack of transparency – it’s not the right time for that,” Kondo said.

The intended scope of the report, Kondo said, was mainly to explain what contact tracing was, outline best practices and compare those to what Hawaii is doing. But he said the office couldn’t get enough information from the department to compare Hawaii’s methods to national best practices.

Among the questions the department wouldn’t answer, the report says, are ones about the department’s follow-ups with people identified as close contacts of those who had tested positive for the virus.

For example, the report says, the department wouldn’t say whether contacts are monitored to make sure they’re staying in quarantine, how such monitoring is done or what the department does if a close contact refuses to self-quarantine.

The full audit report is available here.

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