State Health Director Bruce Anderson and Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda will be retiring by the end of September. Both came under heavy criticism for what some saw as their inadequate response to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases statewide and in the prison system.
Anderson’s retirement becomes official on Sept. 15. Dr. Libby Char, an emergency room physician, will step in as his interim replacement.
Espinda is taking personal leave through September, then retiring on Oct. 1. Public Safety Deputy Director Maria Cook will temporarily take charge of the department.
Gov. David Ige said he did not ask Anderson and Espinda to retire. Instead, they approached him and he accepted their resignations.
“I did not lose confidence in Director Espinda or Director Anderson. They did inform me that they had decided to retire. They both have decades of service to our community,” he said.
“We do have a plan to move forward to respond to the criticisms and concerns raised in both departments. You've seen some of the response already as we've reconfigured, disease investigation and contact tracing. We continue to make improvements in our COVID-19 response as we identify gaps and shortcomings.”
The two directors are the latest among a handful of Ige department heads who have left or announced they are leaving.
Labor Director Scott Murakami had taken leave June 1 under the pressure of dealing with skyrocketing unemployment claims and long delays in benefit payments. In August, Ige announced that Murakami was resigning.
Early last month, the director of the Department of Human Services, Pankaj Bhanot, said he was stepping down, citing family reasons.
Following confirmation hearings this summer, Ige's nominee for tax director, Rona Suzuki withdrew her name from nomination after tough questioning by state senators. She is now special advisor to House Speaker Scott Saiki.
Anderson was appointed as health director in June 2018. He also held the position between 1999 through 2002. His 2020 fiscal year salary was $154,812.
Decisions by Anderson and state Epidemiologist Sarah Park not to expand testing and to limit the hiring of contact tracers -- turning down offers of help in the process from the Hawaii National Guard, the city and others to ramp up those programs -- were missteps that hobbled the state when COVID cases surged.
Anderson and Park had downplayed the role of testing and contact tracing in curbing the triple-digit cases that have marked much of August. They largely blamed instead the lack of appropriate safety behavior among state residents. Ige said Park will remain part of the health department's COVID response effort.
Espinda was appointed as public safety director in 2015. Espinda’s 2020 fiscal year salary was $154,812. The explosion of COVID-19 cases at Oahu Community Correctional Center, the state's largest correctional facility, led to calls for his ouster from the Hawaii Government Employees Union and United Public Workers, the labor groups representing employees at the prison.
According to the latest count, 289 OCCC inmates and 63 staff have tested positive.
For the public to regain trust in the health department, House Speaker Saiki said Anderson’s replacement will need to be extremely transparent.
“As soon as the new health director comes on board, she needs to explain what her immediate goals are and how she's going to accomplish them,” he said.
“We already know she's going to have to have a plan for screening, testing, for contact tracing, but she should also explain how the health department will assist in developing our travel reopening plan and how it will help with providing PPE to the community. There needs to be a specific work plan in place when the new director is on board and it has to be articulated clearly to the public.”
Ige said the health and public safety departments are already trying to improve accountability by releasing more information about the COVID response to the public.
The state will be launching a new data dashboard in the next week covering information that includes contact tracing, disease investigations and hospitalization rates.