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Hawaii auditors stonewalled in contact tracing probe

By CALEB JONES

The Associated Press

HONOLULU — A report from Hawaii’s state auditor’s office says Department of Health officials stonewalled them while attempting to get answers about the government’s coronavirus contact tracing program.

The report, which was released Wednesday, says the auditor’s office “encountered barriers, delays, and ultimately were denied access to those responsible for leading the department’s contact tracing.”

The report says Health Director Bruce Anderson spoke with auditors, but he would not answer specific questions about contact tracing and deferred those inquiries to other Department of Health chiefs. Those people, including the heads of the outbreak control and disease investigation departments, did not contact auditors.

Requests for comment from the Department of Health and Anderson were not immediately returned.

At one point, the report says, there was a meeting scheduled with the head of the disease investigation branch. The agency was instructed to include the attorney general on emails regarding the meeting, and at the last minute the meeting was cancelled. The governor’s office followed up to assert that the meeting could not go forward.

A request for comment from Gov. David Ige’s office was not immediately returned. A call requesting an interview with Hawaii’s State Auditor Leslie Kondo was not immediately returned.

“While we understand DOH staff are busy, especially those working to improve the department’s contact tracing approach, we expected the department’s full and timely cooperation,” the report says. “We did not expect the Attorney General or the Governor’s office to involve themselves in our attempt to report about DOH’s approach to contact tracing.”

Additionally, the report says, the Department of Health did not release documents on its policies and procedures for contact tracing, despite multiple requests.

For months, Hawaii had among the lowest infection rates of COVID-19 positive test results in the nation. But after restrictions eased ahead of summer holidays, which spurred large gatherings on beaches and elsewhere in the islands, Hawaii saw an alarming spike in positive tests results.

On Wednesday, new data from the previous 24 hours showed more than 10 percent of people tested for COVID-19 had the disease.

Oahu, Hawaii’s most populous island and where the vast majority of new coronavirus cases are being reported, went back to a stay-at-home order Thursday as officials try to conduct 70,000 coronavirus tests.

The federal government will help local officials test 5,000 people daily for two weeks.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams noted during a news conference with Honolulu’s mayor that Hawaii had previously enjoyed a 5 percent percent or lower positivity rate. Adams warned a rate above 10 percent could overwhelm the health care system.

State Epidemiologist Sarah Park had overseen the contact tracing program. But earlier this month, the Department of Health hired a new official to run the program after calls for Park’s removal.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Lt. Gov. Josh Green called for Park to be removed from management of the contact tracing program. Gabbard also asked for Anderson’s removal for what she called “gross negligence” in the pandemic response, including failing to hire a sufficient number of contact tracers.

Several legislators expressed displeasure with the health department’s apparent unwillingness to accept offers from the University of Hawaii, private Hawaii universities, the National Guard and the U.S. Department of Defense to provide additional trained tracers, including some at no cost.

“I just hope the health department will be more open to accepting help,” state House Speaker Scott Saiki said earlier this month.