Health officials dispute contact tracing report
By CALEB JONES
The Associated Press
HONOLULU — The Hawaii Department of Health is disputing a state auditor report that said health officials did not provide timely information on its coronavirus contact tracing program.
The report, 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, including State Epidemiologist Sarah Park, who was overseeing the contact tracing program at the time.
The Associated Press reported on the auditor’s findings Thursday. Requests for comment from the Department of Health went unanswered, but Friday a written statement was provided.
“The Hawaii Department of Health recognizes that transparency and accountability are critical for sustaining trust and confidence in our actions,” the statement said. “We agree with the auditor that the public deserves accurate and honest communication, especially during times of crisis.”
The statement went on to say the auditor’s assertion that there was a lack of cooperation is untrue.
“Employees attempted to accommodate the auditor’s very short time frame for interviews, despite the fact these employees are balancing a number of requests on top of their pandemic response duties. Although we could not immediately schedule interviews according to the auditor’s time frame, we only asked for them to be rescheduled,” the statement said.
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.
“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.”
On Friday, the attorney general’s office sent a statement saying it “was participating because it was our understanding that the auditor was conducting his activities at the request of the Senate COVID Committee. And because the attorney general was involved in coordinating for that committee it made sense to participate here.”
Additionally, the report says, the Department of Health did not release documents on its policies and procedures for contact tracing, despite multiple requests. The Department of Health statement did not address any requested documents and when asked if they had sent any documents as of Friday, no response was immediately provided.
State Auditor Les Kondo said Friday that his office was never given the opportunity to speak with Park, who was in charge of the contact tracing program. Earlier this month, the Department of Health hired a new official to run the program after calls for Park’s removal.
He also said no documents have been given to date.
“I can confirm that we have not received any of the documents we had requested from the Department of Health or any other information from the department relative to our attempt to report about DOH’s approach to contact tracing,” he said in an email. “The department was well-aware of the urgency in our requests and our intent to provide clear, consistent, timely, and objective information about its contact tracing.”