Local health officials have faced an unprecedented level of vitriol during the coronavirus pandemic. Across the country, hundreds of health officials have left their posts in response to threats and harassment or been forced out by government leaders for failing to support misinformation. In places like Orange County, security details have had to be assigned to ensure health officers’ safety.
The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) is now calling for increased protection for these public servants. In a letter to U.S. Attorney Gen. Merrick Garland, NACCHO asks that public health leaders and staff be included in the Department of Justice’s recent directive addressing the growing harassment, intimidation, and threats against school officials.
While the pandemic has brought greater appreciation by many to the importance of public health and the people who work in the field, too many health department leaders and their staff have experienced threats to their jobs, their safety, and their family members. These threats have come from community members, organized (and armed) anti-government militias, and politicians. As one of our members, Dr. Jennifer McKenney stated in her testimony before Congress on September 29, 2021: “Even though the virus is the enemy, their anger and frustration are often directed toward public health officials like me.”
These threats have taken a toll: at least 300 public health department leaders have left their posts since the pandemic began, impacting 20% of Americans. In many cases, they have been verbally abused and physically threatened. Their personal information has been shared, their families targeted, and their offices attacked. They have been politically scapegoated by some elected officials and either fired or forced to leave their positions for standing up for the health of their communities. Of note, many of these threats have included misogynistic and racist undertones, further violating these officials.
While threats to lower-level employees are harder to track, a recent study of the public health workforce by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this past spring found that about 26% of respondents experienced stigma or discrimination because of work, 24% felt bullied, threatened, or harassed because of work, and 12% received job-related threats because of work. Health department staff experiencing these types of threats and harassment were nearly twice as likely as their peers to have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
These threats and acts of violence against government workers in their professional capacity have profound impacts on these individuals and their families. Some have had to move to driving unmarked cars or adding at-home security cameras, others have had to rely on police escorts and round-theclock security, while others changed their children’s behavior worried about if they will be targeted instead. While these incidents have occurred over the course of the pandemic, they have been particularly acute around school-related public health directives. For example, in August, Kent County, Michigan’s health director was almost run off the road by an angry individual. Another received death threats.
NACCHO says, far too often, little is done to prosecute those who threaten health staff. The toxic environment is draining local governments of knowledgeable experts, which could impact their ability to respond to the next pandemic.
Read the entire letter here.