Gov. David Ige today announced the retirement of two controversial members of his cabinet: state Health Director Bruce Anderson and Public Safety Department director Nolan Espinda.
The retirement announcements come after community criticism and calls to fire the two. It also follows the departures of the three heads of the state departments of Tax, Human Services, and Labor and Industrial Relations — all of which also have come since July while the state was in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ige said in giving their reasons both talked about “the grind of being in charge in this pandemic.”
Dr. Libby Char, an emergency room physician, has been appointed to take over leadership of the state Department of Health effective Sept. 16, following Anderson’s Sept. 15 retirement.
Char’s appointment follows months of controversy over DOH’s COVID-19 response.
The latest issue emerged Sunday when about 1,000 people from a Kaneohe surge testing site were told that they have to retake the test due to a mislabeling error. The tests, which won’t be counted, were part of an initiative that Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Ige and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams announced Tuesday that aims to test up to 60,000 Oahu residents over two weeks.
Espinda’s retirement is effective Oct. 1.
Ige announced that Maria Cook, the deputy director for administration will be temporarily assigned and has been granted signatory authority while Espinda is on personal leave through September. Ige said he will announce an interim appointment to lead the department in the coming weeks.
Last week, the United Public Workers union called for Espinda’s immediate removal citing “months of inaction by the state” to stop the spread of COVID-19 at Oahu Community Correctional Center.
UPW was joined by Hawaii Government Employees Association who called for immediate leadership change at DPS, along with safety protocol improvements at OCCC, the Honolulu District Court Cellblock, Hawaii Paroling Authority, and at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
As of Sunday, there were 81 active cases among inmates and 45 among staff members who lived and worked at the crowded facility and had tested posted for COVID-19. Officials reported 13 OCCC staff members and 208 inmates have already recovered.
The outbreak got so bad that the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered the release of certain inmates and detainees — a move that’s been unpopular with community critics who thought the step could have been avoided if PSD had been more proactive.
HGEA also had been among the critics calling for changes at the Health Department. The union filed a grievance in early August alleging that there were are only 15 epidemiological specialists on Oahu and three on the neighbor islands to perform contact tracing for thousands of potential COVID-19 cases.
National recommendations for contact tracers vary, but based on population counts some experts have estimated that Hawaii should have between 420 and 564 contact tracers responding to the pandemic.
The grievance alleged that not only were union members overworked, but some epidemiological specialists were required to perform field swabbing and outreach response without official guidelines, protocols or proper training.
Rumors that Anderson was going to leave the department began circulating in mid-August when sources close to the state Department of Health said he was on personal leave.
He was absent when Gov. David Ige held the first of several media briefings to address complaints about contract tracing. But he was back on the job after only taking what the health department had characterized as a few days off “to rest and re-energize.”
“It has been an honor and pleasure to serve as director under Gov. Ige, with Nolan and my other fellow cabinet members. In my retirement, I look forward to doing a lot more fishing and horseback riding with my wife, Debbie,” Anderson said in a statement today.
Ray Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health and a member of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 economic and financial preparedness speaking to the committee today said of Anderson’s retirement, “We think that’s probably a good start, for no other reason than to restore public confidence. But we also know that it goes deeper than that.
“It’s a cultural issue, it’s a culture of leadership, it’s a culture of action orientation, it’s a culture of accountability and it’s a culture of (lack of) transparency. Unless we see significant change in that entire culture beyond just individuals providing leadership I think we’re still going to struggle. So we’ll continue to press that issue, continue to call for those immediate changes.”
U.S. Rep Tulsi Gabbard in April was among the first critics to call for Anderson’s firing. She renewed efforts after the HGEA grievance was fired.
Dr. Scott Miscovich, the president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaii, who is running COVID testing sites, also was among those urging the state to dismiss Anderson.
While Lt. Gov. Josh Green didn’t directly call for Anderson’s dismissal, the emergency room doctor did call for someone else to be put in charge of the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing and testing.
On July 16, Dr. Emily Roberson was hired to lead the Health Department’s Disease Investigation Branch, including its contact tracing program. Health Department Deputy Director Danette Wong Tomiyasu also was assigned to assist the division and provide oversight as their deputy director of health resources, she said.
Green said he was pleased with the prior changes and with the selection of Char.
“She’s good. I tried to hire her when I became Lt. Gov. for my team,” Green said. “She’s very smart and very stoic.”
In a letter to DOH employees today, Ige said Anderson had informed him of his decision to retire last week and that he was confident that Char would “step into the role with energy and passion for ensuring the health of Hawaii’s people.”
Ige told employees in the letter that Char “brings experience in medicine and administration to the department during a time of great stress on the state’s healthcare system.”
Char, who is an emergency physician, graduated from the University of Hawaii Manoa John A. Burns School of Medicine.
After a residency in California, she returned to Hawaii where she joined the clinical practice of emergency medicine at the Queen’s Medical Center. She’s previously served as the state EMS District Medical Director for Oahu. She still provides medical direction for several EMS, Fire and Ocean Safety agencies statewide and is the chairwoman of the state’s EMS Advisory Committee.
In 2011, Char was the chairpwoman of the Health and Medical Planning committee for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, involving 21 heads of economies and approximately 10,000 attendees.
Dr. Jonathan Dworkin, an infectious disease doctor who has been highly critical of DOH’s COVID-19 response, said “Dr. Char would be a good choice for a bigger role. She’s bright, she’s ethical, and she’s no-nonsense.”
“We are experiencing a major leadership failure at the state level now. We actually have the resources to implement a competent public health response in Hawaii, but we have chosen not to,” Dworkin said. “To fix that we need to clear a lot of bureaucratic driftwood. We need to hold people accountable for outcomes, and in particular for building a better integrated system of test-trace-quarantine. There’s no way that’s going to happen without leadership changes.”
Writer Dan Nakaso contributed to this report.