Nolan Espinda, Bruce Anderson are latest of Gov. David Ige’s cabinet members to exit
Governor David Ige today announced the resignation of two controversial cabinet members: State Health Director Bruce Anderson and Public Security Director Nolan Espinda.
The pension announcements come after community criticism and calls to fire the two of them. It also follows the departures of the three heads of the state’s tax, human resources, and labor and industrial relations divisions – all of whom have also come since July, when the state was in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ige said on Honolulu Star Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii digital show this morning, “I did not ask you to resign. You have informed me that you are going to retire. “
Ige said when they gave their reasons, they both talked about “the trouble of being in charge of this pandemic”.
Dr. Libby Char, an emergency doctor, has been appointed to take over the helm of the state health department effective September 16, after Anderson retired on September 15.
Char’s appointment follows months of controversy over DOH’s COVID-19 response.
The latest edition came out on Sunday when about 1,000 people were told by a Kaneohe surge test center that they had to retake the test due to a mislabeling error. The tests, which are not counted, were part of an initiative announced Tuesday by Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Ige and U.S. surgeon General Jerome Adams that aims to test up to 60,000 Oahu residents within two weeks.
Espinda’s retirement will take effect October 1st.
Ige announced that Maria Cook, the deputy administrative director, will be temporarily appointed and authorized to sign while Espinda is on private leave until September. Ige said he would announce a tentative appointment to head the department in the coming weeks.
Last week, the United Public Workers union called for the immediate removal of Espinda, citing “months of state inaction” to halt the spread of COVID-19 at the Oahu Community Correctional Center.
UPW was supported by the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which called for an immediate change in leadership at DPS and improvements to security protocols at OCCC, the Honolulu District Court Cellblock, the Hawaii Paroling Authority, and Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
As of Sunday, there were 81 active cases among inmates and 45 among staff who lived and worked in the crowded facility and were being tested for COVID-19. Officials reported that 13 OCCC staff and 208 inmates have already recovered.
The outbreak got so bad that the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered the release of certain inmates and prisoners – a move that was unpopular with community critics who thought the move could have been avoided if PSD had been more proactive.
HGEA was also one of the critics who called for changes to the health department. The union filed a complaint in early August alleging that there are only 15 epidemiological specialists on Oahu and three on the neighboring islands to track thousands of potential COVID-19 cases.
National recommendations for contact tracers vary, but based on population size, some experts have estimated that Hawaii should have between 420 and 564 contact tracers responding to the pandemic.
The complaint alleged that union members were not only overburdened, but that some epidemiological specialists had to conduct smearings and outreach procedures without official guidelines, protocols or adequate training on site.
Rumors that Anderson was leaving the department began circulating in mid-August when sources close to the Department of Health said he was on private leave.
He was absent when Governor David Ige held the first of several media meetings to deal with complaints about contract prosecution. But he was back at work after just taking what the health department had as a few days off “to rest and recharge.”
“It has been an honor and a pleasure for me to serve as Director under Governor Ige along with Nolan and my other cabinet colleagues. In my retirement, I look forward to doing a lot more fishing and horse riding with my wife, Debbie, ”Anderson said in a statement today.
Ray Vara, President and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health and a member of the House Select Committee for Economic and Financial Preparedness for COVID-19, told the committee today about Anderson’s retirement: “We think this is probably a good start for no other reason is considered to restore public confidence. But we also know that it goes deeper.
“It is a cultural issue, it is a culture of leadership, it is a culture of action orientation, it is a culture of responsibility and it is a culture of (lack of) transparency. Unless we see significant changes in this overall culture beyond just leading individuals, I believe we will still struggle. So we will keep pushing this issue and keep calling for these immediate changes. “
US Representative Tulsi Gabbard was one of the first critics to call for Anderson’s dismissal in April. She renewed her efforts after the HGEA complaint was fired.
Dr. Scott Miscovich, the president and founder of Premier Medical Group Hawaii, which operates COVID testing sites, was also among those pushing the state to fire Anderson.
While Lt. Gov. Josh Green did not directly request Anderson’s discharge, the ambulance requested that someone else be hired to track and review the state’s COVID-19 contacts.
On July 16, Dr. Emily Roberson hired to lead the Department of Health’s disease screening division, including the contact tracing program. The Department of Health’s deputy director Danette Wong Tomiyasu has also been tasked with assisting and overseeing the department as deputy director of health resources, she said.
Green said he was happy with the previous changes and Char choices.
“She’s good. I tried to hire her when I became Lt. Gov. for my team,” said Green. “She’s very smart and very stoic.”
In a letter to DOH staff today, Ige said Anderson informed him last week of his decision to retire and that he is confident that Char “will enter the role with energy and passion to help keep people healthy to ensure in Hawaii ”.
Ige told staff in the letter that Char “brings medical and administrative experience to the department at a time of great strain on the state health system.”
Char is an emergency doctor and graduated from the Manoa John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii.
After a stay in California, she returned to Hawaii, where she took over the clinical practice of emergency medicine at Queen’s Medical Center. She previously served as the medical director of the State EMS District for Oahu. She still provides medical direction for several EMS, fire, and marine safety agencies across the state and chairs the state’s EMS advisory committee.
In 2011, Char chaired the Health and Medical Planning Committee for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which involved 21 economic leaders and approximately 10,000 participants.
Dr. Jonathan Dworkin, an infectious disease doctor who has been very critical of DOH’s COVID-19 response, said, “Dr. Char would be a good choice for a bigger role. It is smart, it is ethical and it is straight forward. “
“We are currently experiencing a major leadership failure at the state level. We actually have the resources to implement a competent public health response in Hawaii, but we chose not to, ”Dworkin said. “To fix that, we need to clear a lot of bureaucratic driftwood. We need to hold people accountable for the results, and especially for building a more integrated system of test trail quarantine. It won’t work without a change in leadership. “
Author Dan Nakaso contributed to this report.