Jennifer Smith, a virologist who spoke up about the Hawaii Department of Health’s need for more COVID-19 contact tracers last year, got fired in May and is now suing the agency to get her job back.

Smith’s lawsuit says she lost her job on May 27 after receiving a notice of termination on May 14.

Last year, Smith alerted Hawaii political leaders about the understaffing of contact tracers during the pandemic and publicly spoke up during a press conference last August.

Her willingness to speak up helped lead to reforms at the health department including the removal of then-state epidemiologist Sarah Park.

Department of Health Epidemiologist and whistleblower Jennifer Smith wipes away tears during press conference held with Tulsi Gabbard on August 14, 2020.
Department of Health epidemiologist and whistleblower Jennifer Smith wipes away tears during a press conference held with then-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on Aug. 14. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Within weeks of the press conference however, Smith was suspended with pay on Sept. 4. She was reinstated on Oct. 28. According to her complaint, Smith was then reassigned to document influenza cases and “her workload was reduced to nearly nothing.”

Smith contends health department officials Sarah Kemble and Danette Tomiyasu gave vague reasons for terminating her at a meeting on May 21 and denied her her due process rights as a union member.

“I spoke out last year to public officials and the public, because the people of Hawaii could not be safe and healthy during the pandemic unless they and those making public health policy knew the facts,” Smith said in a written statement distributed by her attorney on Wednesday. “No one should be misinformed, uninformed, or left to guess about the actual risks from or most effective responses to the pandemic.”

Smith is seeking her job back along with back pay, among other things, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the Department of Health confirmed Smith is no longer with the agency but referred further questions about her lawsuit to the Attorney General’s Office.

Read the full complaint here:

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