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June 24, 2020

'A big red target on their backs': Health officials face death threats over coronavirus policies

Daily Briefing

    In recent months, public health officials have faced a wave of death threats over policies implemented to curb the new coronavirus' spread, and a new analysis by Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press finds that, since April, at least 27 state and local public health officials across 13 states have resigned, retired, or been fired.

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    According to the New York Times, the recent wave of threats comes amid already stressful working conditions for many public health officials and providers. Many public health departments have been chronically understaffed and underfunded, "leaving them ill-prepared to handle a mounting crisis," the New York Times reports.

    'There's a big red target on their backs'

    Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, on Monday issued a statement saying she has received multiple threats of violence. "The death threats started last month, during a Covid-19 Facebook Live public briefing when someone very casually suggested that I should be shot," Ferrer said. "I didn't immediately see the message, but my husband did, my children did, and so did my colleagues."

    According to the New York Times, these threats to Ferrer and other officials appear to come from a "vocal and angry minority of the public" who believe that nonessential businesses should be permitted to operate despite the risk of spreading the new coronavirus, and that some public health officials have been too cautious in their reopening strategies.

    Other critics cite conspiracy theories and claim the new coronavirus isn't real, or that potential vaccines against the virus are part of an effort to track American citizens. And others argue that being required to wear a face mask or covering in public violates their personal freedom.

    In Colorado, people have thrown rocks at the Tri-County Health Department's office window three separate times, and the department has received an email referring to its members as "tyrants" and claiming they're "about to start a hot-shooting … civil war"—threats that eventually spurred health department workers to relocate to a different office.

    Meanwhile, Lauri Jones, director of a small public health department in Washington, said she learned that "[s]omeone posted on social media that [the department] had violated their civil liberties [and] named [Jones] by name. They said, 'Let's post her address … Let's start shooting.'"

    In Ohio, Amy Acton, who had been serving as director of the state's Department of Health, earlier this month resigned from the position and announced she'd be moving to an advisory role. Acton for months had been receiving threats, such as armed protestors showing up at her house with signs that included anti-Semitic and sexist slurs.

    And in California, Emily Brown, director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department, was fired after she encouraged stricter rules be put in place to contain the coronavirus' spread and received threats from the community over the guidance.

    Meanwhile, Andre Fresco—executive director of the Yakima Health District in Washington, which is experiencing a surge in new coronavirus cases—said he's been "called a Nazi numerous times" because of coronavirus-related policies.

    "I've been told not show up at certain businesses. I've been called a Communist and Gestapo. I've been cursed at and generally treated in a very unprofessional way. It's very difficult," Fresco said.

    "Now that we're quite visible and we're part of very difficult decision-making, naturally those decisions are having an incredible impact on community members in a very specific way," Umair Shah, executive director of the public health department in Harris County, Texas, explained. "That's where the problem comes in."

    Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said, "There's a big red target on their backs. They're becoming villainized for their guidance. In normal times, they're very trusted members of their community."

    Officials express concern over threats' potential impact

    Public health officials, who typically operate in relative anonymity, have been shocked by the threats they're receiving, Theresa Anselmo, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, said.

    According to Freeman, officials are "really getting tired of the ongoing pressures and the blame game," and she warned that more officials could leave their positions in the near future.

    "This is the beginning of a wave of people leaving," Anselmo said. "Who would want to go work as a director in a public health department when you have a target on your back?" she added.

    Marcus Plescia, CMO with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said he's worried about the trend of officials leaving their positions. "I don't think I've ever seen anybody resign for the kinds of reasons we've seen recently," Plescia said. "We are very concerned that if it continues to get worse, it's going to have major implications for who will be willing to have these jobs."

    Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, has the same worry. "We've never seen this level of vitriol before," she said. "I'm worried not just about the present but about the future. When they're subject to such harassment, who is going to step into these jobs?" (Bosman, New York Times, 6/22; Williams/Stringini, Fox5Atlanta, 6/19; Weber et. al., AP/Kaiser Health News, 6/12; Shalby, Los Angeles Times, 6/22; Wrobleski/Sharfstein, USA Today, 6/17; Weiner/Cha, Washington Post, 6/22).

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