Denby Fawcett: The State's Stranglehold On Important Data During the Pandemic is Unforgivable - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

During the coronavirus pandemic, it is a federal crime to hoard personal protective equipment, medical devices and needed medicines.

It should also be a crime to hoard potentially lifesaving information.

That is what the Department of Health and some other state and city departments are doing with their sequestering of important data that might help residents make better informed decisions on how to protect themselves, as well as to help slow Hawaii’s current surge of coronavirus infections and deaths.

Government officials should be releasing more precise facts on how and where the virus is spreading, including the names of neighborhoods where infections are surging instead of pointing out contagion by zip codes.

The health department should also release the names of long-term care institutions where there have been positive cases, the name of individual schools where students and employees are testing positive for the virus instead of just complex areas, and provide more details on what individuals were doing when they believe they might have caught COVID-19.  Were they wearing masks?  How many people were with them at the same gathering and how many succumbed to the disease?

Also helpful to know would be more about institutions where there have been no infections. What did those places do to remain disease free?

Kaneohe District Park COVID19 surge testing with HFD Fire Department firefighters assisting with unused test kits. August 26, 2020
State and city officials need to release more information including where positive cases are showing up. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

And the state needs to give residents better data-driven explanations for why certain activities are now prohibited.  Did anyone test positive for COVID-19 after hiking or playing tennis or after tending to vegetables in a community garden? How many people got sick after sunbathing on the beach?

Health Department Communications Director Janice Okubo said in an email, “The DOH is working on how to improve how information on cases and clusters is shared while ensuring accuracy and protecting individual privacy.”

She said the department expects to soon post a new page with more detailed metrics and data.

‘We’re All In This Together’

A mantra widely used now is “We are all in this together” but residents are less compelled to join the effort when they receive only partial information about what will help them stay well.

Disasters tend to uncover pre-existing ills in a society. The pandemic has exposed what has always been outrageous here:  Hawaii’s government agencies’ notorious reluctance to share data with the public.

Hiding facts makes no sense. When a government withholds information people become mistrustful. They imagine the worst.

The best way to enlist the public’s support in any emergency is to provide clear, consistent and timely information to give people a reason to join the fight.

That as well as accurate information to reassure the populace that government agencies are doing all they can to protect them.

It is definitely pointless to exaggerate or mislead like State Epidemiologist Sarah Park did Aug. 6 when she told members of the Senate’s special committee on COVID-19 the health department had 105 contact tracers actively working.

Department of Health Edpidemiologist Sarah Park removes mask before speaking during COVID-19 press conference announcing 41 new positive cases. July 7, 2020
Department of Health Epidemiologist Sarah Park has appeared numerous times before legislative panels and at press conferences. Questions have been raised over whether she misled officials. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

When state senators made a surprise visit to the health department the next day, they discovered instead only five Hawaii National Guard members doing the actual contact tracing, and helping them were a few stressed out state investigators crammed into cubicles, some of them overwhelmed by having to handle almost 200 preliminary investigations each.

It turns out some of the contact tracers “actively working” were part-timers working from their homes when they felt like it.

Since then, Park has been removed as the point person for contact tracing and the tracing effort is now handled by Emily Roberson, the chief of the department’s new disease investigation branch. Roberson has ramped up tracing, moving more than 50 tracers into a Hawaii Convention Center ballroom for a total of 126 tracers on board statewide.

Despite the increased seriousness of the pandemic, the health department continues to withhold information requested not only by news reporters and the public but also by non-profits and other government agencies.

In a critical report, State Auditor Les Kondo said he has been stonewalled by the health department’s barriers and stalling and the department’s outright refusal to provide him with documents and interviews for his audit on the particulars of DOH’s contact tracing program.

Kondo said in his report: “The lack of cooperation we received is, frankly, inexcusable. Public confidence in the department, specifically in its ability to perform timely contact tracing of the growing number of positive cases, has been eroded.”

The health department also has withheld information from the University of Hawaii and the City and County of Honolulu to assist the agencies in their effort to test sewage water for traces of the coronavirus — an affordable early warning method to detect the presence of the disease.

The state Department of Education is also hoarding important information according to another critical report by Kondo.

“It is counterproductive – and unreasonable – for the department to control and limit information that is not only important to the public, but essential for teachers and families to make informed decisions about returning to school campuses.” — State Auditor Les Kondo

Kondo says top DOE officials including the school superintendent refused to make themselves available for meetings or to provide current policy and process information on what public schools are doing when a student or school employee tests positive for the virus, how parents are informed and how DOE traces close contacts of anyone infected.

Kondo said Superintendent Christina Kishimoto finally offered a tardy reply to his questions in a letter answering only some of his questions. She sent her letter after Kondo’s report was in production and his summary had already been emailed to state senators.

“It is counterproductive – and unreasonable – for the department to control and limit information that is not only important to the public, but essential for teachers and families to make informed decisions about returning to school campuses. These circumstances demand greater cooperation and transparency,” he wrote in his report.

Nonprofit organizations dedicated to advocating for Hawaii’s fragile populations have also complained about the lack of transparency when they request information useful to their members and clients.

AARP Hawaii, an advocacy group for older people, says it has been beseeching the health department for nearly five months to release the names of long-term care institutions where residents have tested COVID-19 positive.

But only this month did DOH release aggregate numbers revealing that 94 residents and employees, visitors and non-caregivers in 28 long-term care facilities and community care homes tested positive for the virus between March 1 to Aug. 18. Six of them died.

AARP Hawaii State Director Kealii Lopez said in a telephone interview that the DOH should be releasing information every day on its internet dashboard including the numbers of newly infected coronavirus cases in long-term care facilities and the names of the facilities.

“Forty percent of the deaths across the country were people living in elderly care facilities. They are the most vulnerable population. More information is needed to help families know what’s going on in facilities and what the state is doing to prevent more cases in them,” said Lopez.

Of course state agencies can argue that they are in the middle of fighting a pandemic and too busy to provide information.

But the state’s own public records law, initially suspended by the governor in March and partially restored in May, encourages agencies to respond to requests for government records “as resources permit” and “to respond without substantial delay” if requests do not require redaction or substantial review.

In a recent newspaper op-ed Karl Kim slammed Hawaii’s government for its “lame excuses” for withholding information such as privacy over public health concerns or because it is following the guidance of so-called expert advice.

Governor David Ige seen with video photographer in foreground, during press conference in the Ceremonial room. August 31, 2020
The Ige administration has stonewalled people, including other state and city officials, who need information to deal with the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Kim is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Hawaii Manoa where he directs the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center.

In a phone interview, he said in planning for any disaster response you prepare for the worst.

He said Hawaii became complacent too fast as the first round of COVID-19 infections and deaths — mostly related to travel— dropped dramatically, when the state should have been anticipating the worst: new cases of infection spreading rapidly throughout the community.

Kim says public information is a public good just like clean air and clean water, and it should be free flowing and readily available especially in the absence of a vaccine to halt COVID-19.

Read this next:

Please Help Save The Waikiki Aquarium

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

You cannot spend what you don’t have.. Agreed they should have, and the state senate is just as much to blame. Whenever money comes in, it’s goes directly into the general funds and the agency needs to ask for the money that was supposed to go to them in the first place.

dboy54 · 3 years ago

As I keep saying, its not to late to impeach Ige. He was aware of Andersons and Sarah's "do nothing" and "did nothing" for the people of Hawaii, that was their  policy.

westlake · 3 years ago

I respect your article, Mrs. Fawcett.I think releasing the info would be counterproductive to Ige's efforts to willfully and purposefully destroy the economy.  Like other blue states, Hawaii is self immolating with plans to blame the destruction and madness on Trump. All blue states march in lockstep, and have the same formula: obfuscate useful info, exaggerate covid numbers, enforce arbitrary lockdown rules, blame Trump for mayhem and downturn of economy.  See: oregon, washington state, california, new york, minnesota, etc.Were Ige to release the info to the public, and allow people to judge their own risk and act accordingly, we'd save the economy.  

coffee · 3 years ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.