On the heels of Health director’s retirement, state epidemiologist takes leave

Published: Sep. 4, 2020 at 5:50 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 4, 2020 at 5:53 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Dr. Sarah Park, the state’s embattled epidemiologist, has taken a leave of absence, the state Health Department confirmed Thursday night.

In a statement, the department said:

“At this time, Dr. Sarah Park is taking a leave of absence from her work at the Department of Health. During her leave, Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu is in full charge of all disease investigation and immunization activities under the Disease Outbreak Control Division.”

The news comes just days after the governor announced state Health Director Bruce Anderson planned to retire later this month.

Anderson and Park have been on the front lines of the state’s beleaguered response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid a surge in infections that the state was ill equipped to handle, they have also faced calls to resign.

Park, in particular, has been roundly criticized for the state’s failure to stand up a robust contact tracing program capable of handling a rise in cases.

“From the very beginning, she has failed to take the necessary steps to address this global pandemic. It appears she never took it seriously. For whatever reason, she was unwilling to hire the contact tracers we knew we would need,” said U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

Congresswoman Gabbard says Park had created a catastrophe in terms of contact tracing.

“And the consequence of that is every single day lately people here in Hawaii are losing their loved ones,” Gabbard said.

After weeks of grilling Park at hearings, state lawmakers made an unannounced visit to the Health Department to find investigators overwhelmed, overworked and unable to follow up on most cases.

Last month, the state brought in Emily Roberson in to help fix the state’s overwhelmed contact tracing program, taking oversight of the effort away from Park. But on Wednesday, Roberson asked to go on leave — a request that was approved — citing confusion over who was in charge.

Those familiar with the situation said Park was still trying to manage contact tracing.

In recent weeks, even Park’s supporters have suggested it might be better for her to step aside given her polarizing effect in some circles.

Park has also butted heads with other medical experts and politicians, including Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, over who should — and should not — get tested for COVID-19.

“Dr. Park had a tough job. I’m not sure if anybody would really want to be in her situation because she had to deal with a crisis,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki.

Saiki had also called for Park’s immediate removal. He is now calling on Governor David Ige to appoint a leader the public can trust.

“It’s really important for the governor to take charge of the situation now. He needs to reset and put people in charge who will help correct all of the deficiencies,” Saiki said.

This story will be updated.

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