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'I’m not a threat’: DOH whistleblower responds to alleged smear campaign against her

Updated: Sep. 11, 2020 at 6:50 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Health Department whistleblower who exposed the state’s woefully inadequate COVID-19 contact tracing efforts vigorously denied allegations she made violent threats against her colleagues and says she has endured “character attacks” after speaking out.

In an interview with Hawaii News Now on Thursday, Dr. Jennifer Smith confirmed that she was forced to take paid leave from the Department of Health on Sept. 4, about three weeks after she went public.

The reason: Some of her colleagues claimed that she had threatened gun violence.

Smith says the allegations against her are fiction — and proof that she is being targeted for coming forward.

“I’m not a violent person, I’m not a threat to any one person," she said.

She added that before she was put on leave, other strange things occurred.

“I was made aware that somebody was looking through my Facebook page to try to find information to use against me and I got a parking ticket at the parking lot even though I had a parking pass,” she said.

Smith came forward in August to tell state senators — and the public — that the Health Department had been untruthful about its contact tracing capabilities while cases were exploding on Oahu.

On Thursday, Smith reiterated what she’d previously said — that DOH investigators following up infections were overwhelmed, working 10- to 12-hour days and putting in weekend shifts, too.

“People were made to feel guilty if they couldn’t work on the weekend. We have single mothers who were asked to work after their children went to bed at night,” she said.

DOH leadership also said contact tracers could handle as many as 20 cases a day — another statement Smith said was not truthful.

“If you get lucky and the case only has one contact or they live alone and don’t work, that’s fantastic. But when you call somebody and there’s 15, 20 people in a household, there’s no way you’re moving on to a new case like even the next day.”

Smith says data is only available as fast as the investigators can input it so the information decision makers and the public get may not always be accurate or in real time.

The virologist said that she told Park on July 31 that the department’s team of investigators couldn’t keep up with the soaring number of infections.

“Her only response was to demand that we had to do more,” Smith said.

She added, "The opportunity to crush out the pandemic has been compromised directly by a lack of effective leadership at the department coupled with the obvious need for more resources, staff and training that has not been addressed. We have missed opportunities to stop the virus in its tracks. I sincerely hope it is not too late to find skilled leaders, more highly trained staff and resources necessary for a dedicated team to do so now.”

After Smith came forward, contradicting claims by the governor and the state Health Department that the state had the situation under control, additional National Guard and other contact tracers were brought on.

State Health Director Bruce Anderson announced his retirement shortly afterward, a new public health expert was brought in to handle contact tracing and state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park was then put on leave.

Gov. David Ige has declined to speak about Park’s status and has insisted that he never lost confidence in Anderson. He said Anderson decided to step down because of the pressures of the job.

Smith said she doesn’t regret speaking up thanks her supporters for sticking by her.

“I’m not an attention-seeking kind of person and I didn’t do this for the attention, but I do appreciate everyone’s support. It’s been very helpful,” she said.

She added she has confidence in the new leadership, especially Dr. Emily Roberson who is now leading the state’s contact tracing efforts.

Asked to respond to Smith’s statements, the Department of Health said it does not provide information on personnel issues.

Smith’s new statements come as the department is facing new questions about the pace at which it’s spending federal CARES Act dollars. Civil Beat, using data published by the Hawaii Data Collaborative, reports the department has spent less than 1% of a $57 million federal award for COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.

This story will be updated.

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