CHICAGO – Leaders of local and state health departments have been subjected to harassment, personal insults and death threats in recent weeks, a response from an angry and public minority that says the mask requirements and restrictions on companies have gone too far.
A top health official, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, released a statement Monday condemning the attacks on public health directors and revealing that she faced repeated threats to her safety.
“The death threats began last month, during a COVID-19 public Facebook briefing when someone casually suggested that I be shot,” Ferrer said in a statement. “I didn’t see the message right away, but my husband did, my children did, and my colleagues did, too.”
“It is deeply troubling,” he added, “to imagine that our doctors, nurses, epidemiologists and environmental health specialists who are working hard on infectious diseases or any of the other members of our team would have to face this level of hatred.”
Across the country, many public health officials entered the coronavirus pandemic with basic staffing and tight budgets, leaving them ill-prepared to handle a growing crisis. Before the pandemic, they had focused on disease prevention, contact tracing for communicable diseases, vaccines, and anti-smoking and vaping campaigns.
Now some of them, who suddenly face the public with regular television briefings on efforts to combat the coronavirus, choose to abandon their positions entirely.
Lori Tremmel Freeman, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said last week that dozens of top health officials have resigned or been fired since the pandemic began. At least four state health directors have resigned from their positions; Dr. Amy Acton, Ohio state director of health, resigned this month after suffering anti-Semitic attacks and protests by armed protesters in her front yard.
Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director of the Harris County, Texas department of public health, which includes Houston, described a tense new role. “Now that we are quite visible and part of very difficult decision-making, naturally those decisions are having an incredible impact on community members in a very specific way,” Shah said. “That’s where the problem comes in.”
Not all officials have said why they are leaving, and some have cited personal reasons or planned retirements, but Freeman said he had heard many reports of bullying.
“There is a big red target on their backs,” Freeman said. “They are becoming villains because of their guide. In normal times, they are very trustworthy members of their community. “
Some critics of public health managers have said they believe that allowing companies to operate is worth the risk of spreading the coronavirus, and that health managers are too cautious about reopens. Others have cited conspiracy theories that the coronavirus is a hoax; that the development of a vaccine is part of a massive effort to track citizens and monitor their movements; and that wearing a mask or fabric face covering is a practice that impedes personal freedom.
In Washington state, where rural counties are struggling with new outbreaks and trying to warn residents to take basic precautions to stop the spread of the virus, pleas from local health officials have often been met with hostility and threats. .
In Yakima County, which has more than six times as many cases per capita as the county that includes Seattle, hospitals have reached capacity and patients have been moved to other locations for medical care. Gov. Jay Inslee warned over the weekend that “we are frankly at the breaking point,” and has said he would require Yakima residents to cover their faces in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
“I have been called a Nazi on numerous occasions,” said Andre Fresco, executive director of the Yakima Health District. “They told me not to appear in certain businesses. They have called me a communist and a Gestapo. I have been cursed and generally treated in a very unprofessional manner. It is very difficult.”
In California, angry protesters have tracked down the addresses of public health officials and have gathered outside their homes, singing and holding signs. Last week, a group called Freedom Angels did exactly that in Contra Costa County, California, filming and posting the videos on Facebook.
“We came here today to protest in front of the home of our county public health officials, and some people might have trouble with that, we took it home,” one woman said in a video. “But I have to tell them that they will come to our houses. Their agenda is contact tracing, testing, mandatory masks and ultimately an injection that has not been tested, “she said, apparently referring to a vaccine even though none have been approved.
Dr. Nichole Quick, director of health for Orange County, California, resigned when the protests and harassment escalated after an order to demand facial masks at certain businesses, including supermarkets and pharmacies. Emily Brown, director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department in rural Colorado, was fired when she encountered community resistance to the stricter standards she had encouraged.
Headings across the country have prompted industry officials to ask if there is a leadership shortage for health departments, even as they fight the pandemic.
“We have never seen this level of vitriol before,” said Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the California Association of Health Officials. “I am not only concerned with the present, but also with the future. When subjected to such harassment, who will intervene in these jobs?
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