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Hawaii state epidemiologist Park leaves health department

February 3, 2021 GMT

HONOLULU (AP) — The state epidemiologist who has been blamed for slowing Hawaii’s coronavirus response has left the Department of Health.

Dr. Sarah Park’s last day with the department was Dec. 31, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Tuesday.

Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo did not give a reason for the separation, and Park could not immediately be reached for comment by the newspaper. She did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press on Wednesday seeking comment.

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Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, is expected to continue in the role while the department searches for a permanent head of its Disease Outbreak Control Division.

Park was placed on paid leave Sept. 4, four days after state Health Director Bruce Anderson announced his retirement. Emily Roberson, hired in July to lead the contact tracing program, asked for a leave for an unspecified amount of time in the same week.

Park and Anderson spoke publicly against mass testing for COVID-19 and the need to obtain significant help from outside the agency for contact tracing, which sparked criticism of their leadership.

The pair were widely faulted for failing to build a robust virus testing and contact tracing program and refusing staffing assistance from the Hawaii National Guard and testing by the City and County of Honolulu.

Jennifer Smith, an epidemiologist who was suspended with pay Sept. 4 after speaking out about the understaffing of contact tracers, criticized the department for fostering a toxic culture of fear that impeded investigators trying to stop the virus spread.

Hawaii health officials reported 90 new infections as of Saturday, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 25,943 cases. The coronavirus death toll remained at 410.

The state’s vaccination program is expected to speed up in the coming weeks as more shots become available, Democratic Lt. Gov. Josh Green said.

More than 151,558 doses of vaccine have been administered in the islands since December.

“We’re now accelerating to the point where we can do over 10,000 shots a day, over 50,000 a week, and you can see how that will pile up really nicely,” Green said.

The state will have 243,800 doses by midweek and 350,000 doses will be administered by the end of February, Green said.

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.