Another coronavirus danger: Harassment of public health leaders poses new threat
Of the confirmed two million coronavirus cases, more than 113,000 Americans have died since the virus emerged here a few months ago. USA TODAY
Targeting of public health leaders is unprecedented and dangerous. All who care about the health of their communities should help stop this trend.
Amid a global pandemic and a long overdue recognition of racism's harmful effects on health, public health officials have a new reason for concern: their own safety.
In recent weeks, threats have led to protective details for the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Georgia’s commissioner of the Department of Public Health, Dr. Kathleen Toomey. Personal attacks, including aggressive protests in front of their 真人百家家乐官网网站homes, have driven Dr. Nichole Quick from her position as health officer of Orange County, California, and pushed Dr. Amy Acton to step down as Ohio's health director.
Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press found that as harassment has become more common, 27 state and local health officials in 13 states have “resigned, retired or been fired” since April.
The targeting of public health leaders is as unprecedented as it is dangerous. All who care about the health of their communities should step up to stop this trend.
On most days, public health is the dog that doesn’t bark. Unlike the police and fire departments, the local health agency has no vehicles with blaring sirens to command attention. The work of public health is generally careful, well documented and, to many outsiders, boring. Even the great successes of public health are barely noticed. When major outbreaks or environmental disasters are averted, life continues as usual.
The situation changes during public health emergencies. Communities depend on the ability of public health agencies to leap into action: staffing shelters in hurricanes, stopping outbreaks of meningitis or distributing critical information about new infectious threats. It’s the public health director at the news conference who explains the details and answers questions about what people can do to protect themselves. Health officials are often calm and trusted sources of reliable information amid uncertainty and fear.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken this dynamic to an extreme. Public health agencies are implementing new surveillance systems, establishing testing centers, launching contact tracing efforts, coordinating with the health care system and communicating to multiple audiences every day.
Early decisions saved many lives
This extraordinary moment has brought agency leaders to the front lines of key decisions on closing and reopening commerce to address the threat of spread. Early decisions to close, made on the basis of evidence and early experience, are estimated to have prevented millions of infections and saved thousands of lives.
In a rational world, success in avoiding catastrophe would strengthen public legitimacy. Indeed, in some cities and states, health directors are appreciated for their expertise and empathy, even as there are civil debates on the best approach to the pandemic. Unfortunately, in other areas, frustration over the economic consequences of the pandemic has intersected with hostility against science, leading local politicians and political activists to question whether COVID-19 is a hoax and to scapegoat health officials.
These attacks pose three major risks to health:
►Harassing health officials can contribute to the spread of COVID-19. For example, as people begin to consider wearing masks as symbols of social control, and liken health directors who advise mask use to dictators, their friends and family may be less likely to protect themselves. Similarly, distrust of health officials may lead people to reject contact tracing, allowing the virus to spread further. Inadequate precautions may be one reason that cases are now rising in more than 20 states.
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Anti-vaxxers help drive opposition
►The attacks can cause collateral damage to other health issues. A community that cannot respect the local voice of science about the risk of COVID-19 is less likely to believe the evidence on such issues as vaccination, climate change and water fluoridation. Indeed, some of the biggest agitators against public health officials come from the anti-vaccination movement.
►Personal threats to health officials can cause lasting harm to their agencies. Qualified people will hesitate before taking public health positions that expose them to personal attacks and physical threats. A leaderless health department or a timid agency may be unable to take necessary steps to warn the public about emerging risks or call for measures that save lives.
With so much at stake, it’s time for everyone to reject attacks on health officials. Local politicians who encourage their supporters to make threats — or who do so themselves — should be defeated at the ballot box. The news media should continue to expose the networks behind the attacks, helping residents to push back.
The low everyday profile of public health should not be mistaken for a lack of vital importance. The dog that doesn’t bark needs support and protection, too.
Trevor Wrobleski is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein is vice dean of public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.