Just two weeks after being announced as the new leader of Hawaii’s contact tracing program — considered critical to helping control the spread of the coronavirus — Emily Roberson has asked for a leave of absence until chain of command issues can be sorted out.

“It is clear that there is significant confusion regarding whose authority and which directives I should be following with regards to COVID-19 contact tracing in Hawaii,” Roberson wrote in an email, sent Wednesday to Danette Tomiyasu, a deputy director of the Department of Health. ”These issues need to be worked out by DOH leadership before I can effectively perform my job duties.”

Department of Health Investigations branch chief Emily Roberson speaks during contact tracing press conference held at the Hawaii Convention Center. August 19, 2020
Emily Roberson, the Department of Health’s new investigations branch chief, is already frustrated by apparently being blocked from doing her job. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Roberson did not return a message seeking more information.

But people who work with DOH have said recently that State Epidemiologist Sarah Park continues to try to lead the contact tracing effort despite the governor announcing on Aug. 19 that Park would no longer be involved and that Roberson was taking over.

Ige said Roberson would report directly to Tomiyasu.

The criticisms of Park have become so fervent that some employees have mounted a show of support by creating campaign-style buttons bearing Park’s likeness and the slogan “We With Sarah!” as well as a matching poster signed with inspirational messages.

Still, the calls against Park continued on Wednesday.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor who has been a leader in the state’s response, was more oblique, calling on anyone hindering Roberson’s efforts to stop.

“Contact tracing is a critical component to Hawaii’s Covid-19 response,” Green said in a text message when asked to comment. “Everything needs to be done to get this program off the ground and functioning properly. Anyone standing in the way of it needs to step aside immediately.”

Other’s called out Park directly. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard called the current drama predictable given what she has heard anecdotally since April, when Gabbard first called for Park’s removal.

“This comes down to Gov. Ige, and what I don’t know is how many more people will need to die, how many more will need to get sick, before he stands up and does the right thing and removes Dr. Sarah Park from this position,” Gabbard said. “If he’s not willing to do that, he needs to step down so someone else can step in and do the job.”

Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki was equally blunt.

“The governor needs to remove Sarah Park immediately; otherwise, the situation will not be salvageable,” said Saiki, who heads a House select committee composed of government, business and community leaders seeking to address the virus. “The future of Hawaii requires decisive action by the governor now.”

“The governor also needs to look generally at his leadership,” said Saiki, who said he has gotten calls and emails from constituents asking to impeach the governor — something Saiki said he has never gotten before.

“It doesn’t happen at all,” he said, when asked how common such calls were previously. “It’s not common at all.”

Park did not return a voicemail.

Health department spokeswoman Janice Okubo and Ige spokeswoman Cindy McMillan didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.


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