KITV 4 ABC | Congressional member demands removal of state health department leadership

August 11, 2020
In The News

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also looking into what kind of federal oversight and accountability can be created to manage use of federal CARES Act money.

HONOLULU - A Congressional member is calling for heads to roll at the state health department. The flap is over the lack of contact tracers. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI 2nd District) wants Governor David Ige to remove Department of Health (DOH) director Dr. Bruce Anderson and chief epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park from their posts.
This, after news broke late last week that the health department does not have as many contact tracers as it's indicated. The state Senate COVID-19 committee made a surprise inspection and says it found just a handful of people working in a disorganized space. Committee chair Senator Donovan Dela Cruz says on Monday, the health department promised to "stand up" 100 more contact tracers. But Gabbard says she's angry it hasn't happened sooner. "The word shocking doesn't even begin to describe how appalling it is to see that, as our state has the highest rate of COVID infections in the country, we don't have an effective contract tracing team or strategy in place," she tells me.
Lieutenant Governor Josh Greens confirms there are whistle blowers making accusations there are less than two dozen contact tracers working in disorganized conditions.
Director Bruce Anderson says there's more than 100 of them on the job. Gabbard reacts, "We have a handful of people working really hard to do an impossible task. Their caseload is so heavy they cannot reach out to individuals within 24 hours to make sure contact tracing is even effective. Over and over we've heard from the Department of Health, 'Don't worry, we have enough contact tracers. We're good to go.' Now they've been exposed."
State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D-24 Kane'ohe, MCBH, Kailua, He'eia, 'Ahuimanu) last week was part of the Senate COVID-19 committee that made a surprise inspection at the health department's contact tracing division. "We went through the Department of Health building and it became evident they needed help. The fact that the Department of Health is using donated space in a credit union conference room downtown is indicative of the fact that they need help and urgency," says Keohokalole, who admits he's frustrated with how the DOH has managed the pandemic. "It's time for the department, administration, and Governor to recognize and admit this is a crisis."
Now, one of Hawaii's Congressional members is asking how Hawaii is using the $50 million in federal CARES Act funding that it got to beef up its contact tracing. "The Department of Health has tens of millions of dollars for this purpose. They've talked and warned us since early in the pandemic about the need to be prepared for a second wave of the virus. And yet we don't have contact tracers, we don't seem to have a plan, and where is the federal money going?" Gabbard says.
"Will you be calling for a federal investigation or anything like that?" I ask.
She responds with, "Oversight and accountabilty is absolutely necessary. We are exploring different options to bring about that oversight and accountabilty." Gabbard says she hopes to release more information about her calls for federal action later this week.
Keohokalole says he's not interested in a federal inquiry. "I don't think we have time for that. We're in the middle of a crisis. We need action," he says. "I'm less concerned about that. I want the problem solved."
Neither does he want the other drastic action Gabbard is insisting on: "Dr. Sarah Park and Dr. Bruce Anderson should no longer be leading our Department of Health. I hold Gov. Ige responsible to make this decision," she states. This is not her first time during this pandemic to demand this change.
KITV4 asked Governor and the Department of Health for an update on hiring contact tracers and a response to Gabbard's criticism. Governor Ige was not able to interview with me on Tuesday, but instead released a statement:
"The Department of Health has played a critically important role in this unprecedented battle against a global pandemic that has challenged public health officials, policy makers and members of the public from its very onset. The department has been part of a leadership team comprised of federal, state and local leaders, and Hawai'i continues to use public health guidance to make key decisions about what to do next.
"The recent rapid surge in cases in Hawai'i requires that we continue to improve and expand our response, in addition to reinstituting restrictions on social gatherings. 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."
Gabbard's not buying it. "All the excuses given so far, Diane, whether lack of space, funding, support, it's all shibai." [Japanese word used colloquially in Pidgin English to mean "lies."]

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