The announcements on Monday that state Health Director Bruce Anderson and Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda are stepping down in the middle of a pandemic leaves Gov. David Ige with some major new problems at a particularly bad time.
Ige publicly thanked Espinda and Anderson for their service and insisted their departures were voluntary, but the leadership of both the health department and the corrections system have come under fierce attack this month as the number of coronavirus infections surged.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center is now the scene of the largest COVID-19 cluster in the state with 352 infections among the staff and inmates. Meanwhile, a crowd of critics has denounced failures by the Department of Health, including delays in ramping up the state’s contact tracing and testing capacity.
“I did not lose confidence in Director Espinda or Director Anderson,” Ige told reporters at a Monday press conference. “They did inform me that they decided to retire. They both have decades of public service to our community.”
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who has described Hawaii’s response to the crisis thus far as “objectively terrible,” said the departures of Anderson and Espinda offer a chance for Hawaii to course correct.
“This is an opportunity for a reset,” Schatz said in a written statement on Monday. “We now have a chance to refocus on the simple measures that have worked around the world – maintaining a good physical distance and good ventilation, targeted interventions in vulnerable communities, testing and contact tracing.”
But the departures of two top executives are unlikely to give Ige any sort of respite from the critics. He does not get any kind of a second chance, said former Gov. John Waihee.
“I don’t think he does, because the crisis is still going on,” said Waihee. “Whether they’re there or not, the buck stops at the fifth floor,” a reference to the governor’s office on the top floor of the Hawaii Capitol.
“So, somehow, he’s still got to deal with the crisis. I mean, what else can you do?” said Waihee, who is an Ige political supporter. “I don’t think anybody gets a reset, not during these times. The times are too rough for that.”
When Ige was asked what needs to be done in the public safety and health departments, he told reporters “we are implementing actions to improve transparency and accountability in both agencies.”
Those steps include preparing a new dashboard for the health department to provide more online data that the public has requested, such as information on hospitalizations, contact tracing and testing, Ige said. That initiative will be launched within the week, he said.
He continued: “We do have a plan to move forward to respond to the criticisms in both departments. You’ve seen some of the response already as we’ve reconfigured the disease investigation and contact tracing, we have brought on additional staff, we are in the process of restructuring the response in that area.”
He also said the administration will be announcing “transition activities” in the Department of Public Safety, but provided no specifics.
Ige 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 chairs the health department’s Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee. She also provides medical direction to several EMS agencies and fire departments across the state, focusing on “developing systems of care, training, protocols and emergency response utilizing best practices in the pre-hospital environment,” according to the governor’s statement.
Previously, Char was the director of some of the largest EMS agencies in the state, including the Honolulu Emergency Services Department, Hawaii EMS District Medical Director for Oahu and American Medical Response.
Char formerly represented Honolulu on the Eagles, a prominent coalition of EMS medical directors from major U.S. municipalities and their global counterparts in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. The group gathers annually to exchange ideas and lessons learned when it comes to responding to emergencies and measuring outcomes.
“It’s a challenging position that she’s stepping into, even in normal times, but in the middle of a pandemic that escalates 100 fold,” said Dr. James Ireland, a nephrologist on Oahu who said he has known Char for about two decades. “Having said that, I think she’s going to do very well and I think her intelligence and her training and her relationships in the community and her temperament suit her very well for the challenges of the job.”
Dr. Rick Bruno, an emergency department physician and vice president of patient care at The Queen’s Health Systems, said he endorses Char’s ability to bridge divides and build consensus across agencies.
“Libby’s an extremely hard worker,” Bruno said. “She’s a coalition builder. When I worked with her on the (Hawaii Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee), she did a good job of bringing together private and public hospitals to work together to improve the EMS system in the state.”
A graduate of the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, Char is a longtime assistant clinical professor in the school’s surgery department. She’s also a volunteer member of a medical school committee that evaluates students’ educational progress.
JABSOM Dean Dr. Jerris Hedges described Char as calm, collaborative, tireless and devoted to her work. He said she’s well versed in the art of toggling her focus between the big picture and all the details at hand that work together to make an effective emergency management response.
“I think in managing an ongoing, evolving crisis like we have, she’ll provide a lot of value,” Hedges said. “But I don’t think you’re going to see completely new messaging happening within the first week or so. I think by mid to late September there will be perhaps a different level of communication and engagement coming from the department that will be characteristic of the way she works administratively.”
House Speaker Scott Saiki said Char will need to take every step to restore public confidence in state government and how it’s managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
He called on Char to implement a full-fledged contact tracing program that will enable the department to collect the data necessary to identify the cause of infection clusters and how to prevent them.
Saiki said he also wants to see Char assist in developing a new tourism reopening plan for the state.
“I hope that the new director comes in with an immediate work plan that is very specific to fixing the deficiencies that we have seen over the past few months, especially in the area of screening, testing and contact tracing,” Saiki said.
State Rep. John Mizuno, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he is optimistic the change in leadership at the Health Department will bring about a more collaborative relationship between DOH administrators and lawmakers, as well as members of the public, whom he said have lost trust in government due to the department’s poor display of transparency.
“The administration dropped the ball on two basic things — robust testing and strong contact tracing,” Mizuno said. “If they would have done those two things, and if they would have been honest to the people, then there wouldn’t be a need for this change.”
But Mizuno said there needs to be a cultural shift at the Health Department that pervades throughout the department. Simply instituting a new leader won’t alone solve the problem.
“The worst that could happen is if Dr. Char takes a dictatorship approach and says, ‘The Department of Health’s view is the correct view and we’re not going to be listening to anyone else,’” Mizuno said. “That’s not going to work because it hasn’t worked and it’s got us to where we are today.”
Ige said Espinda is on personal leave through September, and will retire effective Oct. 1. Maria Cook, the public safety deputy director for administration will be temporarily assigned and has been granted “signatory authority” to act in Espinda’s place.
The Hawaii Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers, two of the state’s most influential public worker unions, each asked last week that Espinda be replaced. UPW represents the corrections officers, and HGEA represents caseworkers and other civilian staff in the department.
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.
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. Nishihara did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Liz Ho, administrator of the UPW, said she forwarded a message to Espinda last week to “step up, or step out. The employees at public safety need leadership.”
Corrections workers still report they do not have the proper protective equipment. They have been using cloth masks sewn by inmates, and report that when they were recently given protective suits, the suits tore when officers put them on. The gloves that were distributed to staff do not fit the female officers, Ho said.
“They don’t have the proper equipment to do their jobs,” she said.
Ho said that Cook sent UPW a letter last week asking for specific information on where in the system the union believes there is a shortage of personal protective equipment. In the same correspondence, Cook provided a copy of the public safety response plan that states that when N95 respirators are in short supply, surgical masks may serve as an acceptable alternative.
“I want to see Maria Cook walk into a module at OCCC where they have COVID-19 inmates housed there, wearing just a cloth mask, and tell me how safe she feels,” Ho said. “I mean, those are the conditions under which our corrections officers are being expected to work.”
The Ige administration has had a series of departures in recent months, including former 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 Department of Human Services, who announced he is stepping down at the end of this month, citing family reasons.
Monday was also the last day for Chris Tatum as head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Waihee said recruiting new talent to lead state departments in the last half of Ige’s final term will be a challenge. Top appointees often leave during the final two years of an administration, although the departures usually happen just after the election, Waihee said.
“The hardest thing to do is to tell somebody to take a pay cut to come in for just two years when you’re recruiting people,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s probably especially hard now to find somebody and to replace people during this period.”
Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this report.
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