Commentary August 6, 2020

Attacks on Public Health Officials During COVID-19

SHP's Michelle Mello writes in this commentary in JAMA Network that the attacks on and harassment of public health officials for taking steps to protect their communities from COVID-19 is extraordinary in its scope and nature, use of social media — and poses a danger to the ongoing pandemic response.
A traffic sign pointing to the county health department.
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On June 24, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom remarked on a disturbing phenomenon: health officers are “getting attacked, getting death threats, they’re being demeaned and demoralized.” At least 27 health officers in 13 states (including Nichole Quick of Orange County in southern California, Ohio Health Director Amy Acton, and West Virginia Health Officer Cathy Slemp) have resigned or been fired since the start of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Across the US, health officers have been subject to doxing (publishing private information to facilitate harassment), angry and armed protesters at their personal residences, vandalism, and harassing telephone calls and social media posts, some threatening bodily harm and necessitating private security details.

The present harassment of health officials for proposing or taking steps to protect communities from COVID-19 is extraordinary in its scope and nature, use of social media, and danger to the ongoing pandemic response. It reflects misunderstanding of the pandemic, biases in human risk perception, and a general decline in public civility. Some of these causes resist easy fixes, but elected officials and health officials can take certain actions to help address the problem.

Today’s increasingly routine harassment and threats against health officials have much in common with growing resistance to childhood vaccination. Since the 2015 measles outbreak that focused attention on vaccine policy, individuals opposed to vaccination mandates have attacked health officials and legislators online or in person in Oregon, Washington, New York, New Jersey, and Colorado. For example, in 2019, protesters threw blood onto California legislators from the Senate gallery; State Senator Richard Pan received death threats and was physically assaulted. Some of the same groups, joined by other individuals frustrated with public health officials, are now actively resisting efforts to require masks, reinstitute business closures, and prepare for COVID-19 vaccination, jeopardizing the eventual acceptance of vaccines.

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