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Health Department whistleblower receives gratitude, support from senators

A suspended Department of Health epidemiologist who exposed Hawaii’s lack of COVID-19 contact tracers likely saved lives and earned support from members of the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, who vowed Friday to rally to her defense.

Four senators took turns praising epidemiologist Jennifer Smith at the start of Friday’s COVID-19 hearing and agreed to write to Gov. David Ige urging him to reinstate her.

Smith’s paid suspension “sends a very bad message across this state that if you bring out or criticize what is going on, you’re going to be put on leave or lose your job,” said state Sen. Donna Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Moana- lua-Halawa). “For her to be put on leave and for her to be threatened and so forth — because she did come out to tell us exactly what was going on — I think is a travesty at this point.”

Whistleblower laws protect Smith, said Kim, who throughout Friday’s hearing continued to criticize the Health Department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as did other members of the special committee.

Smith had revealed there were not 105 contact tracers, as the senators were repeatedly told by health officials, but only 10 on Oahu and fewer than 20 across the islands.

She also revealed the numbers at an Aug. 14 news conference with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who had been calling for the removal of state Health Director Bruce Anderson and state Epidemiologist Sarah Park.

Smith, Kim said, “was told not to speak to the media, not to speak to any of us. This is a travesty to our laws and a slap in our faces.”

In a letter through her Honolulu attorney, Carl Varady, Smith wrote that she was suspended with pay Sept. 4 after speaking out about the lack of COVID-19 contact tracers, while alleging that a “toxic” DOH “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.”

Smith said her suspension was the result of a “faction protecting Dr. Park,” who is also on paid leave after shouldering the blame for a lackluster COVID-19 contact tracing program. Anderson has announced his retirement. When Emily Roberson was brought in to take over testing and contact tracing, she abruptly asked to be placed on leave, saying the chain of command was unclear. She returned after Park was put on leave.

State Sen. Sharon Moriwaki (D, Kakaako-McCully- Waikiki) got agreement from other members Friday that the committee be on the record in supporting Smith.

“The governor should intervene and bring the staff back to Department of Health to serve the people of this state,” Moriwaki said. “We are looking at the Department of Health to lead us.”

State Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani-Waikele-Kunia) said that “if it wasn’t for Jennifer and her courage, we would still be having three-digit cases in the 300 numbers and higher. Who knows how many people would have succumbed to COVID-19?”

“I owe Jennifer a gratitude of thanks for coming forward and giving us the reality of the turmoil that DOH was in — and all along we doubted that they were up at 105 contract tracers, as we were told for months,” Kidani said. “To find out the hard truth was something that took very much courage, and I truly, truly thank Jennifer for it because she has probably saved many, many lives.”

Kidani also supported the effort to lobby Ige to “bring Jennifer back to her duty station.”

State Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) said, “Jennifer took it upon herself to come here knowing the repercussions. … We should be very thankful that she came forward. … We’ll do whatever we can to help her out.”

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