Hawaii Department of Health whistleblower Jennifer Smith, the epidemiologist who was suspended with pay on Friday after speaking out about the understaffing of COVID-19 contact tracers, says the DOH fostered a “toxic” culture of fear that impeded the work of investigators trying to stop the spread of disease in the community.
“A management culture of bullying, shame and blame fosters a culture of fear, not the solid science that is essential to ensure Hawaii’s public health,” she wrote in a letter issued by Honolulu Attorney Carl Varady, who is now representing Smith. “Employees should not have to choose between protecting their careers, through unquestioning loyalty to ineffective leadership, versus asking for the tools to do the kind and quality of science necessary to stop the pandemic. Our job is saving lives, not saving face.”
A DOH spokeswoman said the Health Department would not comment on personnel issues.
Smith said she was forced to leave the department due to a “faction protecting Dr. (Sarah) Park,” the state epidemiologist blamed for failing to build a robust COVID-19 testing and contract tracing program. Park was placed on paid leave on Sept. 4, four days after her boss, Health Director Bruce Anderson, announced his retirement on Sept. 15. Days before, Emily Roberson, who was recently hired to take over the contact tracing program, asked to be placed on leave, but is now back on the job.
Park could not be reached for comment.
“Character attacks on me after I spoke up publicly, and ‘We with Sarah’ buttons, are not going to stop the pandemic or save a single life in Hawaii,” Smith said. “Saving lives will only occur through good science, conducted by dedicated people who have the resources necessary to do their work without managers who put micromanagement and personal loyalty ahead of Hawaii’s public health.”
She said she took a personal and career risk by exposing the chronic staffing shortages at the DOH since the start of the pandemic, even as the department claimed it had a sufficient public health workforce to identify new coronavirus cases, trace contacts and ensure those infected were isolated.
Smith, who has been employed by the DOH since 2016, alleged there were only 10 so-called contact tracers on Oahu and fewer than 20 across the entire state on Aug. 14 at a news conference with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who called for the resignations or firings of Anderson and Park on multiple occasions. At the time, health officials had claimed to have nearly 100 tracking down people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
She said the investigators worked six to seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day — often with no overtime pay “trying to defend Hawaii from the pandemic while the numbers of infected people continued to mushroom.” Employees did not see the $50 million in federal CARES Act funds the DOH was awarded being used to build a public health workforce and they “constantly were unable to protect the people at the level that is necessary to respond effectively to detect and prevent the spread of the virus.”
“Our workload reached 300% of intended capacity, working with outmoded computers, overwhelmed phones staffed by people without complete training, and a data system that was never validated. Even working from home on weekends, we could not keep up,” she wrote, adding that she met with Park on July 31 to inform her that investigators were overwhelmed and unable to keep pace with the growing numbers of infections, only to receive a demand that employees do more.
“People of our community have been confused, frustrated and anxious. I spoke out because the people of Hawaii deserve not only to be as safe and healthy as possible during the pandemic — they deserve to know the facts,” Smith said.
“The opportunity to crush out the pandemic has been compromised directly by a lack of effective leadership at the department coupled with the obvious need for more resources, staff and training that has not been addressed,” she added. “We have missed opportunities to stop the virus in its tracks.”