Dr. Libby Char rebuilding trust and efficiency as new Health Department leader

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — In her first television interview since taking over the state Department of Health less than two weeks ago, Dr. Libby Char talked one on one with Always Investigating. Char spoke frankly about how she’s navigating some of Hawaii’s most crucial functions through this pivotal time in the pandemic.

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Char brings her experience as a physician and a public-sector emergency services manager to the state Department of Health, replacing Dr. Bruce Anderson who retired last month.

KHON2 asked: “You’ve taken over a department at which the public from the outside saw great disarray, discord, even dysfunction in some of its most critical tasks. What are you seeing now that you’re on the inside and how are you going to right that ship and restore public trust?”

“There is an awful lot of good really good work, very professional people, technical experts and people are working so hard, and I think a lot of that has just been overshadowed,” Char said. “Yes, we want to restore public trust. I think we’ve done a lot to that end. We’ve improved contact tracing, the whole process. We’ve hired more contact tracers and epi-specialists, and I think we’re trying to work on making things more efficient and streamlined.”

Hawaii is unique in that there are not county departments of health, just one single state department. Char wants to change the mindset to foster more cooperation.

“We still need to partner with the counties, private sector businesses,” Char said. “We need to build those partnerships, and that’s what is going to allow us to move forward. We really, really need that collaboration.”

More focus on kupuna is on the way in the wake of an ongoing deadly cluster at a Big Island nursing home.

“Yukio Okutsu (State Veterans Home) is just heartbreaking,” Char said.

She is directing more support for testing for care and nursing homes, and enlisting the help of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, also adding infectious disease staff.

“Those infectious disease specialists go to the long-term care facility and go out in to the community,” Char explained. “They help educate the staff and can help make suggestions and provide guidance and whatnot.”

We asked about contact tracing and data transparency.

Char says more new data should be available in the future on sectors and activities where COVID is prevalent.

“We would like to share whatever information we can,” Char said. “I think the dashboard is evolving and it’s grown. In some ways I think it’s a little bit big because we’re trying to be all things to everybody so maybe we need to focus a little bit better.”

KHON2 asked: “What is the state Department of Health doing to support a much higher volume of going tests and at the same time to make sure that they’re actually valid and reliable platforms and methods?”

“Testing is actually a really important topic to me,” Char said. “We met all weekend, all day Saturday and almost all of Sunday to work on this. We’re trying to develop a more comprehensive testing strategy. We want to increase the testing capacity but we need to do it smartly. We need to focus on the priority areas as well as on surveillance.”

The feds recently asked states to have a “fully operational” vaccine distribution plan ASAP. Char says she’s working with point person Lt. Gov. Josh Green, federal agencies, state emergency management and others.

“We are meeting several days a week with this because the federal government is expecting a plan in October, so we are trying our best to meet that deadline,” Char said. “We really need to get the public’s buy in on it as well.”

Short of a vaccine for now, we asked what’s working to shorten hospital stays or hasten recovery?

“It’s very promising to see the Dexamethasone and also the Remdesivir,” Char said, “and we have been getting weekly allotments from the federal government.”

Char addressed the resources her department still needs, shared guidance to keep schools safe, and weighed in on ideally adding more travel tests post-arrival. That’s in our extended interview in the additional video on this page.

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