WASHINGTON — Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard renewed her attacks on Hawaii Gov. David Ige and two of his top health officials Tuesday as the Aloha State struggles with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that so far has claimed 34 lives on the islands.

Hawaii has seen a sharp increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, and currently boasts the highest infection and virus reproduction rates in the country.

Yet, the state’s response, which is led by Health Department Director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park, has been underwhelming, Gabbard and others believe, especially when it comes to mobilizing contact tracers who can help find and contain the virus.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speaks during the 2018 Hawaii Democratic Convention held at the Hilton Waikaloa in Kona, Hawaii.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been critical of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic for several months.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gabbard took to Twitter to voice her frustrations Tuesday, citing a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article reporting that the state was slow to hire new contact tracers even though many of them are ready to go.

She blamed Ige directly and said it’s time to get rid of Anderson and Park.

“This is your responsibility,” Gabbard told Ige. “Your Health Director is keeping hundreds of trained contact tracers ‘on the bench’ because he doesn’t think they’re needed. Meanwhile we have the highest infection rate in the nation. This is gross negligence. Anderson & Park need to go.”

In a statement to Civil Beat, Ige said the Department of Health has played “a critically important role” in the state’s response to the pandemic, and that it comprises just one part of a team made up of federal, state and local officials.

“The recent rapid surge in cases in Hawaiʻi requires that we continue to improve and expand our response, in addition to reinstituting restrictions on social gatherings,” Ige said. “I am in ongoing discussions with DOH leadership on ways to improve our testing and contact tracing systems and capacity. And we are confident that plans and resources are being put in place to meet the needs of our community.”

His statement did not address Gabbard’s calls for Anderson and Park to be removed.

This isn’t the congresswoman’s first call out of Ige or his health department during the pandemic.

Department of Health Edpidemiologist Sarah Park sits socially distanced from DOH Director Dr. Bruce Anderson during COVID-19 press conference announcing a spike of 41 new cases. July 7, 2020

Health Director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park have been criticized repeatedly for their handling of the pandemic.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In April, she told Ige in no uncertain terms to fire Anderson and Park or resign himself so that he could let Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency room physician, take charge.

And just last week, her office issued a press release in which Gabbard directly criticized the state’s refusal to hire more contact tracers, saying that Hawaii needs to put hundreds of more people out into the field to even have a chance of reducing the spread.

“Congress has provided funding for contact tracing, and the Department of Health has over 400 trained contract tracers while only employing around 100 of them,” Gabbard said. “There is no excuse not to actively employ all available, trained contact tracers, along with additional personnel from the Hawai‘i National Guard, to rapidly trace, investigate, and contain every single positive COVID case.”

She cited a tool from George Washington University that estimated that Hawaii would need 564 contact tracers if it plans to reopen safely while mitigating any future waves of infection. Gabbard said the state, with about 100 contact racers on the ground, was only about one-fifth of the way there.

“Every hour, every day we delay puts more people in our community at risk,” she said.

Other high profile politicians have taken the state to task too.

Green himself has said last week that it’s time for new leadership at the Department of Health, specifically singling out Park for her handling of the outbreak.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has also expressed frustration over the state’s slow response to the virus and apprehension to accept help. In May, he even held a press conference to urge the state to conduct more testing and hire more contact tracers, but said at the time he was getting push back from officials in the health department.

More recently, he has complained publicly that his office has trouble getting good information about tracing from the health department even though he meets with the governor frequently and asks about it.

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