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Whistleblower says Hawaii Department of Health’s ‘toxic’ culture of fear impeded investigators’ work

State Department of Health whistleblower Jennifer Smith, the epidemiologist who was suspended with pay Sept. 4 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.

“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.”

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 last week, the same week her boss, Health Director Bruce Anderson, announced he will retire Tuesday. Also last week, Emily Roberson, who was recently hired to take over the contact tracing program, asked to be placed on leave, but returned to the job after Park left.

A DOH spokeswoman, asked about Smith’s criticism, said the Health Department would not comment on personnel issues. Park could not be reached for comment.

Smith, who has been employed by the DOH since 2016, was retaliated against with allegations that she made threatening comments, Varady told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s bogus,” he said. “It’s just a pretext to smear her at a time when the management at the Department of Health is putting lives in jeopardy and she’s speaking out to stop it.”

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.

“Character attacks on me after I spoke up publicly, and ‘We’re 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.”

Speaking at a news conference Aug. 14 with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Smith said there were only 10 contact tracers on Oahu at that time and fewer than 20 across the entire state. Gabbard called for the resignations or firings of Anderson and Park.

Smith 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.

“I said in that meeting that ‘I am breaking. I have no more left to give, and we need more support.’ Her response was just make sure that we put the date of the initial contact in the computer system and make sure that the public knows the DOH has this under control,” Smith told the newspaper, adding that Park refused to ask for help from willing groups, including the Hawaii National Guard. “Our jaws just dropped. I, like, left that meeting and went to the bathroom and just cried. I started to panic. I couldn’t breathe.”

Health officials reported Thursday three more coronavirus deaths and 169 new infections statewide, representing 2.3% of the 7,211 new tests conducted. That brings the state’s totals since the beginning of the pandemic to 94 fatalities and 10,292 cases. The latest fatalities were Oahu residents: a man between 70 and 79 years old, and a male and a female both between the ages of 50 and 59 with underlying health conditions. Hawaii County Civil Defense earlier announced that 10 people with COVID-19 on the Big Island have died, all of them at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home. Those are awaiting verification and not yet part of the official coronavirus death count.

The U.S. death toll has surpassed 191,000. As of Thursday, 7,022 infections in Hawaii were considered active cases, with 3,176 patients now classified as released from isolation, or about 31% of those infected.

The recent decline in daily new cases statewide indicates the measures to curb COVID-19 are working, health officials said, with the seven-day positive case rate at 3.3%. Oahu’s second stay-at-home, work-from-home order aimed at stopping new infections started Aug. 27 and was extended through Sept. 23. Oahu parks, beaches and hiking trails reopened Thursday, but only for solo activities.

“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.”

Letter from Hawaii Departme… by Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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