After being placed on paid administrative leave for more than two months, the state virologist and COVID-19 case investigator who exposed flaws in the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing program has returned to work, Hawaii Department of Health officials confirmed Monday.
In an email, Deputy Director for Health Resources Danette Tomiyasu Wong said Jennifer Smith returned to work on Thursday. Former state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park remains on administrative leave.
No further details were provided by department officials. They have declined to discuss why Smith was placed on administrative leave.
Smith’s lawyer Carl Varady said in a statement that an internal investigation by the Department of Health concluded that a co-worker’s allegation that led to her suspension was not substantiated.
That allegation — that she threatened a co-worker — has only been alluded to in Smith’s public statements and has not been confirmed by health department officials.
Smith said in a statement that she was grateful to return to work.
“Good science, conducted by dedicated people who have the resources necessary to do their work, saves lives,” she said. “I am very happy to be back with the team and able to contribute wherever my skills as a scientist are needed within the Department to keeping Hawaii’s people safe and healthy.”
Smith first spoke publicly in August about her experience conducting contact tracing for the department, citing over-worked investigators and a department ill prepared to trace everyone who tested positive for COVID-19 as well as contacting the people they exposed.
Her outcry led to a contact tracing program overhaul and, along with widespread criticism by political leaders and others, sparked changes in the department’s leadership. Former Health Director Bruce Anderson retired and Park was put on administrative leave.
It is still unclear whether Park, who led the health department’s coronavirus response, will return to work.
The health department declined to provide any more information and Park did not respond to a request for an interview.
The current contact tracing team is led by the Disease Outbreak and Investigation Branch Chief Emily Roberson.
The state is still struggling to contact everyone with the disease, despite revamping its contact tracing processes by prioritizing case investigations for the most vulnerable populations infected.
Many people with the virus fill out incorrect information or don’t pick up the phone, Roberson said.
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