A former Hawaii Department of Health epidemiologist who exposed deficiencies within the department’s COVID-19 contact tracing program last year is suing the state alleging that she was fired in late May 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 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 to her job in October.
She was then fired in May, said Smith, after supervisors accused her of inappropriate social media posts and releasing confidential information, which she denies. Smith says that health department officials were vague about their specific concerns.
“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 Honolulu 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.”
Officials with the Health Department and Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Health Department would only confirm that Smith no longer works for the department.
Smith says that when she returned to the Health Department in October she was reassigned to document and report on influenza cases, rather than work on contact tracing for COVID cases.
Smith’s “workload was reduced to nearly nothing,” according to her lawsuit. “She was underutilized and isolated from the rest of DOH staff and managers.”
She was told on May 14 that she was being terminated from her job at the Health Department, according to her complaint, and a week later she met with Acting State Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble and Danette Wong Tomiyasu, a deputy director at the Health Department. The decision to terminate her employment was instigated by either Kemble or Tomiyasu, or both, according to the complaint.
While health department officials declined to comment on the allegations, a review of Smith’s social media posts indicates that in recent weeks she posted publicly against some of their policy positions and prevailing views about the safety of the vaccine. For instance, in a four-page memo she says she sent to Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, she laid out her arguments for opposing a vaccine passport system, which she called “scientifically meaningless.”
She wrote that the number of adverse events and deaths associated with the vaccines “continues to climb to over 233,000 and 2,300 deaths respectively in the U.S. alone.” She cited metrics in the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.
However, top health officials have said that citing such figures, as others have, is highly problematic and not backed up by science because anyone can report adverse events to the system and the adverse reactions and deaths have not been verified to be tied to the COVID vaccine.
She also wrote in her memo that people who have contracted COVID will have immunity to the virus, “therefore it is medically irrelevant to vaccinate them,” a position that contradicts the advice of national and state health officials.
In another post on LinkedIn she was critical of Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. “Fauci claims that those questioning him are criticizing science. Fauci is NOT a Nobel price winner and has not been a scientist for a very long time; he’s an administrator,” she wrote.
Smith’s attorney, Carl Varaday, said that health department officials did not raise concerns about the memo that Smith sent to government officials regarding a vaccine passport program, but did raise concerns about similar content and ideas she posted elsewhere. He said health officials had referred to some of the content she posted as disturbing and disruptive.
But he said that provides no justifiable grounds for firing Smith.
“This is public employment,” said Varaday. “This isn’t working for General Motors or Tesla or Apple, Amazon, where they can kick you to the curb by the way you part your hair. Public employees enjoy protections constitutionally and statutorily.”
He said the Health Department was making “fuzzy accusations that despots all over the world use when they don’t like people disagreeing with them.”
The lawsuit asks that Smith be reinstated to her job, be awarded back pay and yet-to-be-determined damages.