Emily Roberson, an epidemiologist hired last year to revamp Hawaii’s COVID-19 contact tracing efforts, has resigned, she told Civil Beat Tuesday.

Department of Health spokeswoman Janice Okubo said that Roberson left her position April 1. “Temporary assignments have been made to ensure that the duties of her position are performed as contact tracing efforts continue,” Okubo said in a statement to Civil Beat.

Roberson was chief of the department’s Disease Investigation Branch, which worked with National Guard members and other contact tracing staff to investigate and surveil COVID-19 transmission.

Roberson said she resigned for unspecified “personal reasons.”

Departmentt of Health Investigations branch chief Emily Roberson talks with Governor Ige after press conference on August 19, 2020 at the contact tracing located in a ballroom at the Hawaii Convention Center.
Emily Roberson, the Department of Health disease investigation branch chief, was hired last summer. In August she met with Governor Ige after a press conference at the contact tracing headquarters at the Hawaii Convention Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“It was a privilege for me to be able to step in and assist the Hawaii Department of Health with COVID-19 response, specifically case investigation and contact tracing pieces of that response,” she said in a phone interview. “Serving alongside all of the disease investigators, the contact tracers, the public health nurses, our administrative and data entry support staff and the Hawaii National Guard in these efforts has been the privilege of my life.”

The Department of Health’s contact tracing efforts came under fire last summer when a whistleblower spoke out in August about overworked investigators and a department ill-prepared to trace everyone who tested positive for COVID-19 as well as the people they exposed.

That led to a program overhaul by Roberson. Just a few weeks later, in September, she requested a leave of absence of two days, citing confusion about her chain of command.

Criticism from political leaders and others last year ultimately prompted changes to the department’s leadership. Director Bruce Anderson retired in mid-September. State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park was put on administrative leave for four months until she left on Dec. 31 after working for the health department for 16 years. DOH never disclosed the circumstances of Park’s departure.

Roberson said the case investigation system she helped develop, which assigned teams to investigate COVID-19 clusters in certain settings, such as schools or the Pacific Islander community, became a model that other states followed.

“It was essentially a Hail Mary task that came out of dire circumstances that is now an example for the rest of the country as best practice,” she said. “Being able to transform where we were in July and August into this complex but also a really productive and efficient system that is now operating, that’s not small.”

Roberson and department officials say their teams are not able to reach every single person who tests positive for COVID-19.

On average, the department successfully contacted 60% to 80% of everyone diagnosed each week, although those statistics have not been updated on the DOH website since Feb. 22.

Many people either provided the wrong phone number, no phone number or didn’t return contact tracer’s calls, according to the department.

The state has recorded an average of 95 new COVID-19 cases daily in the past week.

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