A former Hawaii Department of Health epidemiologist who exposed the department’s lack of COVID-19 contact tracers early on during the pandemic is suing the state alleging that she was fired in retaliation for speaking out.
Jennifer Smith made headlines last year after accusing the Health Department of lying about the number of contact tracers it had on staff. She said that the number was much lower than top health officials claimed and current staff had been working long hours and six to seven days a week to try to keep up with an increase in cases.
Smith was briefly suspended with pay in September. She says she had been falsely accused of making threatening comments at work and an investigation found such claims to be baseless. Smith was reinstated at her job in October.
She was then fired on May 28, said Smith, after supervisors accused her of inappropriate social media posts and releasing confidential information, which she denies. Smith says that health department officials refused to cite the posts or information they were concerned about.
“I definitely believe that I’m being punished for speaking out last year about the failures of leadership to increase capacity to respond appropriately to the outbreak,” she told the Star-Advertiser. “When I returned to work at the end of October, I was very nervous because I knew I would be targeted for sure. I made sure that I did all my assigned work, that I did it to their satisfaction. There were no performance issues mentioned to me. This kind of came out of the blue.”
Health Department officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit asks that Smith be reinstated in her job, be awarded back pay and yet-to-be-determined damages.