Directors of Health, Public Safety to step down amid criticism of state’s COVID-19 response

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Updated: Sep. 1, 2020 at 7:00 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In an extraordinary development Monday, the governor announced that his directors of Health and Public Safety would be stepping down as the state faces growing criticism of its handling of a COVID-19 surge and a huge outbreak at its largest jail.

Gov. David Ige said in a news release that Health Director Bruce Anderson and Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda will both be leaving their posts in September, characterizing their departures as retirements and thanking them for their “many years of service” in the public sector.

“Both directors have served admirably under extremely challenging conditions, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ige said.

“I ... wish them well as they retire and are able to spend time with their families.”

At a news conference later in the day, Ige repeatedly said he did not ask for their resignations.

[Read more: Governor says he ‘did not lose confidence’ in directors of Health, Public Safety]

“I did not lose confidence in Director Espinda or Director Anderson,” Ige said. “They did approach me about their retirements and I accepted their resignations.”

The announcement comes amid widespread scrutiny over the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and in the wake of calls for both directors to resign.

Hawaii has seen nearly 6,400 coronavirus cases and 44 fatalities in August alone, and new daily infections remain in the triple digits. As cases soared beginning in July, onlookers learned that the state had not adequately prepared for a surge when there were few new cases in April, May and June.

And without adequate contact tracing or widespread testing, experts said, the state and city were ill equipped to slow the spread of the virus.

Last week, the city announced a new shutdown on Oahu, forcing non-essential businesses to once again close their doors as they had in March. The state has also delayed its planned reopening of tourism, a major blow to not only the industry but the businesses that rely on visitor dollars.

The Ige administration’s failure to contain the virus have generated headlines in recent days, including a story in Politico titled, “Paradise lost: How Hawaii went from COVID-19 start to cautionary tale.”

The article notes that before federally-backed surge testing began last week on Oahu, Hawaii had one of the nation’s lowest per capita testing rates.

Anderson and state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park have been the Health Department’s two most visible faces in the fight against COVID-19.

However, in recent weeks, there have been increasing calls for both to resign.

Earlier this month, an unannounced visit to the state Health Department by state senators revealed an agency overwhelmed by a surging number of cases and unable to follow up with all those infected. DOH claimed it had more than 100 contact tracers, but a shortage of investigators created a huge backlog.

The issues led to the removal of Park from managing the contact tracing program. However, the governor said Monday that Park remains the state’s epidemiologist.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Monday that the new leadership at the Health Department needs to put contact tracing and testing at the forefront of response efforts.

“It can’t just be the director of Health that has to change, you have to actually look at Dr. Park and others. If they’re not willing to do testing and tracing, they should find another role,” Green said.

“Very intelligent people, but they missed the boat on what was the most central thing the Department of Health can do as everyone knows across the world.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, added HNN Anderson’s departure is an “opportunity for a reset.”

He added, in a statement to Hawaii News Now, “We now have a chance to refocus on the simple measures that have worked around the world—maintaining a good physical distance and a good ventilation, targeted interventions in vulnerable communities, testing and contact tracing.”

Anderson was appointed state Health Director in June 2018. And in recent weeks, it wasn’t just politicians who said it was time for a change. Health and business leaders also said Anderson wasn’t the right person for the job.

Hawaii Pacific Health CEO Ray Vara said Anderson’s decision to step down was a necessary step.

Bank of Hawaii CEO Peter Ho agreed. “We really need to change the culture here. We’re up against an agile adversary and we need to fight that with agility ourselves,” he said.

Anderson’s departure will leave the agency charged with leading the state’s public health response to the pandemic without a permanent leader for at least several months.

Dr. Libby Char has been appointed interim director effective Sept. 16. She is an emergency medicine physician and has provided administrative oversight to EMS.

Her appointment is subject to Senate confirmation.

Meanwhile, Espinda has also faced calls to resign, including from two public sector unions.

The unions and a growing list of lawmakers have criticized Espinda’s handling of a massive COVID-19 outbreak at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where at least 290 inmates and 58 staff members have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks.

Espinda’s retirement is effective Oct. 1, but he is on “personal leave” through September. The governor said he will announce an interim director to lead the department in the “coming weeks.”

The departures of Anderson and Espinda are just the latest from the governor’s cabinet this summer.

Last month, Pankaj Bhanot, head of the Department of Human Services, announced he was leaving. He cited family reasons. DHS is in charge of Medicaid and food stamp benefits.

In July, Rona Suzuki, withdrew her name for state tax director.

And in June, Ige put Labor Director Scott Murakami on leave as the state was experiencing the worst unemployment crisis in its history. Murakami has since taken a job in another department.

State House Speaker Scott Saiki said of Espinda and Anderson leaving:

“The new directors will have to be decisive. They’re going to have to have the ability to pivot when things change and they’re going to have to have good communication skills because they need to build public confidence. At this point, that is what’s lacking”

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