State Health Director Bruce Anderson and Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, the embattled directors of the state health department and prison system, are leaving Gov. David Ige’s Cabinet, officials announced Monday.
Anderson has been faulted for failing to rapidly ramp up the state’s contact tracing capacity, release meaningful data and take other steps when the COVID-19 infection rate in Hawaii was the lowest in the nation this spring. Critics said those shortcomings left the state unprepared for the forewarned surge in infections that began after crowds gathered on the July 4 holiday weekend and continued into August.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has repeatedly called for Anderson to be replaced, and on Monday U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz criticized the Ige administration response in general as well as specific failures by the health department.
In a news release Monday morning, Ige said Anderson informed the governor he planned to retire, and Ige said he accepted his decision.
“Bruce has served the people of Hawaii for many years and has led the department through some rough times, including through the extremely challenging months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ige said in the announcement. “I wish him well as he relaxes and enjoys time with family and friends.”
Ige said he appointed Dr. Libby Char interim director of the Department of Health effective Sept. 16 following Anderson’s retirement, which is effective Sept. 15.
Char is an emergency medicine physician who provided administrative oversight for the Honolulu Emergency Medical Services system for years, Ige said. She currently focuses on “developing systems of care, training, protocols and emergency response utilizing best practices in the pre-hospital environment,” according to the governor’s statement.
In a letter circulated to corrections staff Monday, Ige also announced that Espinda will retire effective Oct. 1 after two of the state’s most influential public worker unions blamed him for a failed response to the COVID-19 crisis at the Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Chairman Clarence Nishihara, an Espinda critic who opposed the director’s confirmation last year, also submitted a letter to Ige Monday asking for the director’s resignation.
Staff at the jail have complained of a lack of personal protective equipment for corrections officers in the midst of what is the largest COVID-19 infection cluster in the state, and reported that the state failed to properly isolate incoming prisoners for 14 days to prevent the spread of the virus in the overcrowded jail.
Public Safety officials reported there were 289 infections among the inmates and 58 staff infections at OCCC as of Saturday.
The administration has had a series of departures in recent months, including former state Tax Director Rona Suzuki, who left when it appeared she might not be confirmed by the Senate in July; former Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Director Scott Murakami, who resigned earlier this month; and Pankaj Bhanot, director of the state Department of Human Services, who announced he is stepping down at the end of this month, citing family reasons.
Monday is also the last day for Chris Tatum as head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
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