The leader of Hawaii’s contact tracing program returned to her role Friday on the heels of State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park going on a leave of absence.

Disease Investigation Branch Chief Emily Roberson “is continuing her work on increasing the efficiency, capacity, reach and effectiveness of disease investigation,” Department of Health spokeswoman Janice Okubo said in a statement.

Roberson had requested a leave of absence until Department of Health officials could clarify her chain of command, citing confusion over whose directives she should follow.

”These issues need to be worked out by DOH leadership before I can effectively perform my job duties,” she wrote Wednesday.

Department of Health Investigations branch chief Emily Roberson speaks during contact tracing press conference held at the Hawaii Convention Center. August 19, 2020

Last month, Gov. David Ige announced Park would no longer be involved with contact tracing oversight and appointed Roberson to assume the role of branch chief, while Park continued to lead the Disease Outbreak Control Division.

During Park’s paid leave of absence, effective Friday, DOH Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu is managing the Disease Outbreak Control Division.

The Disease Investigation Branch is a department within the Disease Outbreak Control Division, formerly managed by Park. The branch is working with National Guard members and other contact tracing staff to investigate and surveil COVID-19 disease activity in the state.

Roberson did not return a message seeking more information about her return on Friday.

Major changes have occurred among leadership at the state health department this week. On Monday Gov. David Ige said Health Director Bruce Anderson, Park’s boss, would be retiring in mid-September, and Dr. Libby Char would assume his role.

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

Anderson and Park have been the subject of considerable public criticism for the way they have handled Hawaii’s coronavirus response, including the state’s testing and tracing efforts which critics have complained have fallen far short of what’s needed.

 

According to the statement from Okubo, the Disease Outbreak Control Division employs more than 30 people full time. Approximately 200 contact tracers work with them, 120 of whom are DOH public health nurses or other state health department staff members.

Another 30 of the contact tracing support staff have been recruited from the National Guard, while the remaining 50 are trainees hired through the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii or Medical Reserve Corps.

More than 100 additional individuals statewide are trained and ready to be activated to conduct contact tracing, Okubo said in the statement.

Contact tracing is part of a broader effort to prevent the spread of the disease. Contact tracers and other investigators call people exposed to the coronavirus and others already infected to provide recommendations about isolation and quarantine to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

Okubo would not provide any additional information about Park’s leave of absence.

“The Department of Health is continuing to fully execute disease investigation and immunization activities for the state,” she said. “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.”

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