A state Department of Health case investigator who exposed flaws in Hawaii’s COVID-19 contact tracing program has been placed on paid leave.

Jennifer Smith, a virologist who has been praised as a whistleblower for bringing the department’s problems to light, confirmed that her supervisor told her late Friday that she was being forced to go on leave. Smith declined to say why she was ordered on leave or what rationale the department gave her.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said the action sends the message that Gov. David Ige and his administration will punish people who speak out.

In an email, DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo confirmed Smith is on leave, and added, “No other information will be provided.”

State of Hawaii Dept of Health Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Smith PhD weeps as she shares the shortage of contact tracers and the explosion of COVID-19 cases. She remembered when she had a panic attack when a case when from a dozen to over 50 people that grew from a cluster. August 14, 2020
Department of Health epidemiologist Jennifer Smith, shown here at a press conference last month, was emotional in describing shortcomings in the state’s contact tracing program. She has now been placed on paid leave. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Smith’s forced exit capped a week of continuing drama for the embattled department.

First, on Aug. 31, Ige announced the retirement of Bruce Anderson, the Department of Health director. Two days later, Emily Roberson, an epidemiologist newly assigned to take over an overwhelmed contact tracing effort, requested a leave of absence until leadership could clarify chain of command issues that had made it hard to do her job. The next day, the department announced the state epidemiologist, Dr. Sarah Park, was put on paid leave.

Smith was put on leave late Friday, the same day as Park.

Anderson and Park had both been under mounting criticism for their apparent failure to execute the state’s coronavirus response strategy effectively.

With tourism dried up and much of Hawaii’s economy shut down, the daily virus case count was low for much of May. The idea was to slowly reopen the economy and use extensive contact tracing and testing to keep the virus in check when things reopened.

A number of organizations, including the Hawaii National Guard, offered to help build a small army of contact tracers, a strategy called for under national criteria.

But Anderson rejected the help, saying the department could “surge from within” and provide the tracing staff needed to keep a lid on the virus.

That didn’t happen. By August, Hawaii’s daily case count was regularly topping 300, and Ige announced Hawaii would stay closed to tourists until at least October.

Against this backdrop, state and federal officials along with the media were vainly clamoring for data, including contact tracing information, about the health department’s response. But it took Smith coming forward to shed light on just how ill-prepared the state’s tracing effort had been.

Gabbard, who has criticized the Ige administration’s slow response, said the latest action does little to restore trust.

“After bravely coming forward to expose the lies coming from Drs. Anderson and Park that cost people their health and in some cases their lives, she has been forced to take leave,” Gabbard said of Smith. “This latest action from Governor Ige and his administration further erodes the public trust.”

“Retaliating against a whistleblower sends a dangerously chilling message to others in our government who are doing the right thing, that they better toe the line or they will be punished,” she added.

Dr. Scott Miscovich, who has been leading efforts to bolster Hawaii’s testing response, previously called Smith a “catalyst” for change and said Smith had shared with policymakers not just her observations but also documentation to show how understaffed the agency was.

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