A Hawaii Department of Health virologist and case investigator who exposed flaws in the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing program is speaking out for the first time since being forced out of the department and put on paid leave last week.

Jennifer Smith prompted an outcry from federal and state officials in August when she publicly reported her experience conducting contact tracing for an agency that she said was woefully understaffed and unprepared to contain the virus.

By then COVID-19 in Hawaii had mushroomed to more than 100 new cases per day – and would soon escalate to more than 300 — from about one new case per day in early June.

State of Hawaii Department of Health Epidemiologist Dr Jennifer Smith PhD at press conference with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Dr. Smith was the whistleblower that shared that the hundreds of contact tracers did not exist. August 14, 2020
Jennifer Smith, a Hawaii Health Department virologist who helped spur change in the state’s contact tracing effort by reporting inadequacies in the department, released a statement on Thursday — her first public response to being placed on leave last week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

After Smith’s revelations, the department announced staff and management changes. And by the first week in September, the people previously in charge of contact tracing were gone. Health Director Bruce Anderson had announced he would retire, and Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist, was forced to take a paid leave of absence.

Then, a day after Park’s departure, Smith was forced to take paid leave. Initially reticent to do more than confirm her removal in an interview with Civil Beat last week, Smith on Thursday issued a two-page statement through her attorney, Carl Varady, who also spoke to Civil Beat.

In her statement Smith reiterated some of what she had said previously.

“I spoke out because the people of Hawai’i deserve not only to be as safe and healthy as possible during the pandemic — they deserve to know the facts,” she said Thursday. “Contrary to other public statements I have read and heard, I was aware of a total of only 10 epidemiologist investigators at the Department on Oahu tracking the spread of COVID-19.

“The members of our team worked six to seven days a week 10 to 12 hours per day,” she continued, “often with no pay for overtime, trying to defend Hawai‘i from the pandemic while the numbers of infected people continued to mushroom.”

But other information was new: It was apparently Smith, for instance, who tipped lawmakers off that “the Department was understaffed and unable to fulfill its role in insuring public safety.”

“I confirmed this in testimony given at a closed Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting, hoping that the legislature could help the Department,” she said.

Afterward, a Senate committee called Park to testify during a combative Aug. 6 briefing, and senators the next day sought to fact-check Park’s responses by visiting the department – to find it overwhelmed.

Attorney: Firearm Allegation Is ‘Totally Bogus’

Smith also addressed accusations that she had threatened a co-worker, the purported reason she was placed on leave.

“Contrary to public statements made by others, the only thing I have ever threatened was the toxic management culture at the Department and that has directly impeded my and other epidemiologist investigators’ work,” she said.

In an interview, Varady elaborated on the accusation, saying that a co-worker had made up the allegation that Smith threatened her with a firearm.

“That’s totally bogus,” Varady said.

He later added, “I can tell you categorically, she has no firearm in her possession and control in Hawaii.”

Jennifer Smith, a state department of health whistleblower, says a campaign by Health Department workers to support State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park has done nothing to protect the public from COVID-19. 

Varady blamed leadership for allowing a divisive culture to fester within a department where he said workers should be focused on the life-and-death work of controlling the virus, not playing office politics.

After Gov. David Ige announced Park would be removed from the chain of command overseeing contact tracing on Aug. 19, some health department workers continued to rally behind Park, creating campaign-style buttons emblazoned with Park’s likeness and the slogan, “We With Sarah!”

The discord became so great at one point that the epidemiologist newly assigned by Ige to oversee contract tracing asked for a leave of absence until leadership could clarify the chain of command. That epidemiologist, Emily Roberson, returned to work after Park was removed from the office.

Smith mentioned the “We With Sarah!” campaign on Thursday, describing it as wasted energy that did nothing to help Hawaii.

“Character attacks on me after I spoke up publicly, and ‘We with Sarah’ buttons, are not going to stop the pandemic or save a single life in Hawai‘i,” Smith said. “Saving lives will only occur through good science, conducted by dedicated people who have the resources necessary to do their work without managers who put micromanagement and personal loyalty ahead of Hawai’i’s public health.”

Department of Health spokeswoman Janice Okubo declined to comment.

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