Hawaii governor defends virus response of health officials

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii's governor has defended the performance of two of the state's top heath officials overseeing the coronavirus response, saying they retain his support despite recent criticism from the lieutenant governor and others.

Democratic Gov. David Ige said he has confidence in state Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson and State Epidemiologist Sarah Park, Hawaii Public Radio reported Wednesday.

“We’ve had a team from the Department of Health that has been actively engaged with federal and county partners, really dealing with this COVID pandemic that we are all experiencing for the first time,” Ige said Tuesday.

Ige said he and the health department leaders are focused on data collection and public health guidance and have implemented restrictions in response to the state's coronavirus situation, including a recent increase in the number of infections.

“We have seen in recent weeks a rapid surge in the number of cases and I have directed the department to accelerate the hiring and expansion of more contact tracers in order to meet the surge," Ige said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green called for Park to be removed from management of the contact tracing effort.

Park told a state Senate committee last week that the health department has 105 active contact tracers and is adding more. Green said he wants to employ 400 to 500 contact tracers, while estimating the state needs hundreds beyond that.

Park's testimony prompted senators to pay a surprise visit to the health department the next day. Some of the legislators described contact tracers working long hours in cramped quarters and handling caseloads beyond their capacity, prioritizing some cases and leaving others aside.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, called on Anderson and Park to resign in April for what she described as a weak response to the pandemic.

She renewed her criticism this week. There is “no excuse” not to use congressional funding to employ all available contact tracers and use Hawaii National Guard personnel to assist, Gabbard said in a statement.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.