Emily Brown was stretched thin.
As the director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department in rural Colorado, she was working 12- and 14-hour days, struggling to respond to the pandemic with only five full-time employees for more than 11,000 residents. Case counts were rising.
She was already at odds with county commissioners, who were pushing to loosen public health restrictions in late May, against her advice. She had previously clashed with them over data releases and had haggled over a variance regarding reopening businesses.
But she reasoned that standing up for public health principles was worth it, even if she risked losing the job that allowed her to live close to her hometown and help her parents with their farm.
Then came the Facebook post: a photo of her and other health officials with comments about their weight and references to “armed citizens” and “bodies swinging from trees.”
The commissioners had asked her to meet with them the next day. She intended to ask them for more support. Instead, she was fired.
“They finally were tired of me not going along the line they wanted me to go along,” she said.
In the battle against Covid-19, public health workers spread across states, cities and small towns make up an invisible army on the front lines. But that army, which has suffered neglect for decades, is under assault when it’s needed most.
Officials who usually work behind the scenes managing everything from immunizations to water quality inspections have found themselves center stage. Elected officials and members of the public who are frustrated with the lockdowns and safety restrictions have at times turned public health workers into politicized punching bags, battering them with countless angry calls and even physical threats.
On Thursday, Ohio’s state health director, who had armed protesters come to her house, resigned. The health officer for Orange County, California, quit Monday after weeks of criticism and personal threats from residents and other public officials over an order requiring face coverings in public.
As the pressure and scrutiny rise, many more health officials have chosen to leave or been pushed out of their jobs. A review by KHN and The Associated Press finds at least 27 state and local health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April across 13 states. [Among them: Rebekah Jones, a top Florida Department of Health data manager Gov. Ron DeSantis fired last month after Jones said she refused to manipulate and remove data from the state’s coronavirus dashboard. She has since launched a dashboard of her own, which shows far more people infected than do state numbers, and provide a wider range of information than the state makes available through its dashboard. All the information is public, but is often buried in hard-to-find reports.]
From North Carolina to California, they have left their posts due to a mix of backlash and stressful, nonstop working conditions, all while dealing with chronic staffing and funding shortages.
Some health officials have not been up to the job during the biggest health crisis in a century. Others previously had plans to leave or cited their own health issues.
But Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said the majority of what she calls an “alarming” exodus resulted from increasing pressure as states reopen. Three of those 27 were members of her board and well known in the public health community — Rio Grande County’s Brown; Detroit’s senior public health adviser, Dr. Kanzoni Asabigi; and the head of North Carolina’s Gaston County Department of Health and Human Services, Chris Dobbins.
Asabigi’s sudden retirement, considering his stature in the public health community, shocked Freeman. She also was upset to hear about the departure of Dobbins, who was chosen as health director of the year for North Carolina in 2017. Asabigi and Dobbins did not reply to requests for comment.
“They just don’t leave like that,” Freeman said.
Public health officials are “really getting tired of the ongoing pressures and the blame game,” Freeman said. She warned that more departures could be expected in the coming days and weeks as political pressure trickles down from the federal to the state to the local level.
From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, federal public health officials have complained of being sidelined or politicized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been marginalized; a government whistleblower said he faced retaliation because he opposed a White House directive to allow widespread access to the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment.
In Hawaii, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard called on the governor to fire his top public health officials, saying she believed they were too slow on testing, contact tracing and travel restrictions. In Wisconsin, several Republican lawmakers have repeatedly demanded that the state’s health services secretary resign, and the state’s conservative Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that she had exceeded her authority by extending a stay-at-home order.
With the increased public scrutiny, security details — like those seen on a federal level for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert — have been assigned to state health leaders, including Georgia’s Dr. Kathleen Toomey after she was threatened. Ohio’s Dr. Amy Acton, who also had a security detail assigned after armed protesters showed up at her home, resigned Thursday.
In Orange County, in late May, nearly a hundred people attended a county supervisors meeting, waiting hours to speak against an order requiring face coverings. One person suggested that the order might make it necessary to invoke Second Amendment rights to bear arms, while another read aloud the home address of the order’s author — the county’s chief health officer, Dr. Nichole Quick — as well as the name of her boyfriend.
Quick, attending by phone, left the meeting. In a statement, the sheriff’s office later said Quick had expressed concern for her safety following “several threatening statements both in public comment and online.” She was given personal protection by the sheriff.
But Monday, after yet another public meeting that included criticism from members of the board of supervisors, Quick resigned. She could not be reached for comment. Earlier, the county’s deputy director of public health services, David Souleles, retired abruptly.
An official in another California county also has been given a security detail, said Kat DeBurgh, the executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, declining to name the county or official because the threats have not been made public.
Many local health leaders, accustomed to relative anonymity as they work to protect the public’s health, have been shocked by the growing threats, said Theresa Anselmo, the executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials.
After polling local health directors across the state at a meeting last month, Anselmo found about 80% said they or their personal property had been threatened since the pandemic began. About 80% also said they’d encountered threats to pull funding from their department or other forms of political pressure.
To Anselmo, the ugly politics and threats are a result of the politicization of the pandemic from the start. So far in Colorado, six top local health officials have retired, resigned or been fired. A handful of state and local health department staff members have left as well, she said.
“It’s just appalling that in this country that spends as much as we do on health care that we’re facing these really difficult ethical dilemmas: Do I stay in my job and risk threats, or do I leave because it’s not worth it?” Anselmo asked.
In California, senior health officials from seven counties, including Quick and Souleles, have resigned or retired since March 15. Dr. Charity Dean, the second in command at the state Department of Public Health, submitted her resignation June 4. Burnout seems to be contributing to many of those decisions, DeBurgh said.
In addition to the harm to current officers, DeBurgh is worried about the impact these events will have on recruiting people into public health leadership.
“It’s disheartening to see people who disagree with the order go from attacking the order to attacking the officer to questioning their motivation, expertise and patriotism,” said DeBurgh. “That’s not something that should ever happen.”
Some of the online abuse has been going on for years, said Bill Snook, a spokesperson for the health department in Kansas City, Missouri. He has seen instances in which people took a health inspector’s name and made a meme out of it, or said a health worker should be strung up or killed. He said opponents of vaccinations, known as anti-vaxxers, have called staffers “baby killers.”
The pandemic, though, has brought such behavior to another level.
In Ohio, the Delaware General Health District has had two lockdowns since the pandemic began — one after an angry individual came to the health department. Fortunately, the doors were locked, said Dustin Kent, program manager for the department’s residential services unit.
Angry calls over contact tracing continue to pour in, Kent said.
In Colorado, the Tri-County Health Department, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties near Denver, has also been getting hundreds of calls and emails from frustrated citizens, deputy director Jennifer Ludwig said.
Some have been angry their businesses could not open and blamed the health department for depriving them of their livelihood. Others were furious with neighbors who were not wearing masks outside. It’s a constant wave of “confusion and angst and anxiety and anger,” she said.
Then in April and May, rocks were thrown at one of their office’s windows — three separate times. The office was tagged with obscene graffiti. The department also received an email calling members of the department “tyrants,” adding “you’re about to start a hot-shooting … civil war.” Health department workers decamped to another office.
Although the police determined there was no imminent threat, Ludwig stressed how proud she was of her staff, who weathered the pressure while working round-the-clock.
“It does wear on you, but at the same time we know what we need to do to keep moving to keep our community safe,” she said. “Despite the complaints, the grievances, the threats, the vandalism — the staff have really excelled and stood up.”
The threats didn’t end there, however: Someone asked on the health department’s Facebook page how many people would like to know the home addresses of the Tri-County Health Department leadership. “You want to make this a war??? No problem,” the poster wrote.
Back in Colorado’s Rio Grande County, some members of the community have rallied in support of Brown with public comments and a letter to the editor of a local paper. Meanwhile, Covid-19 case counts have jumped from 14 to 49 as of Wednesday.
Brown is grappling with what she should do next: dive back into another strenuous public health job in a pandemic, or take a moment to recoup?
When she told her 6-year-old son she no longer had a job, he responded: “Good — now you can spend more time with us.”
AP writer Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu and KHN correspondent Angela Hart in Sacramento contributed to this report. This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News.
I could go on a diatribe about how these people that threaten are disillusioned and have zero understanding of their actual rights, leaning on a document that does not do or allow the things they say it does.
I could also lament how all these health officials are doing is trying to save lives until a vaccine is ready and then, well you’re on your own. People will either vaccinate or they won’t, you can’t help them once there is a choice.
I won’t do either but will say this—Trump’s America looks like this, feels like this, and behaves like this. With each passing day, it becomes more clear just exactly who supports Trump. It’s not my life-long Republican father, whose great uncle was a POTUS—one of the greatest in history. Even my father had enough sense not to vote for Trump and wrote-in a candidate instead. It’s the people that have hate and animosity toward other humans that are different from what they see in the mirror. It’s the people that want to threaten the lives of others when they don’t agree with something they say or do. It’s the people that cannot have constructive dialogue or conversation without resorting to stereotypical epithets instead of meaningful discourse and compromise. This is Trump’s America, one he knows well and loves because he’s the exact same way. He lies when he says he doesn’t know the importance of a certain date or phrase. He says and does exactly what he wants with no regard and his supporters emulate him. It would be scary if it wasn’t so sad that people continue to be this way in 2020.
Trailer Bob says
Sounds like he said she said…What a mess. People need to stay calm and work together. People’s thoughts on this virus are all over the spectrum. Some don’t even believe there is a Virus in the US, while others think it is going to get us all.
On one hand, you want people to be safe and survive this monster, while on the other hand there are those who think it is a hoax.
As for the “to open up or not to open up”, it is complex yet at the same time simple to understand. People have bills to pay and if they are not working their regular job, it is almost impossible (in many cases) to survive. The fear of losing ones home, car, rented furniture, repossession, etc, is real for many and very stressful.
All the talk about the government providing money (checks) for people to help them survive is overrated. I personally received $1200 and that was it. I can only WISH that all I have lost in revenue from this virus situation was $1200. In reality, the bills keep coming and the people calling for my services stop coming. Will survive, ofcourse. We will suffer, get stressed out, argue with our spouses, snap at the kids, and perhaps drink a little more than usual, but we will survive. But just keep in mind, all of us are not being affected equally…I am doing better than some and worse than some. But we are all in this together so please remember that.
Mike Cocchiola says
I cannot be more disgusted with Trump and his ardent followers – Trump for risking lives to increase his chances for reelection and his followers for making public health a culture war. The divide widens.
Manipulating Data, OMG why am I not surprised! Ever since the onslaught of Covid-19 we have been lied to and manipulated by those who we are supposed to trust, yeah right! Next.
CB from PC says
Of course they were fired for not going with the “program”. It does not matter if it is a lie, as long as the people in charge agree. Democrats have been getting away with it for decades.
Rebekah Jones your parents I am sure are very proud of you for telling the people of Florida the truth about the virus when Governor DeSantis is hiding the truth from its citizens that voted him into office.
The people now can no longer trust Governor DeSantis for hiding the facts and truth which the citizens of Florida have a right to know for their own safety and health of themselves and their family.
DeSantis only seems to want to please one person and that is his idol, Donald Trump. People will remember this when he runs for re-election, just as they will be remembering Donald Trumps failure regarding the virus also.
DeSantis is a big disappointment for his failure to the people of Florida which he is supposed to protect and serve.
I guess DeSantis was never told lies always catch up with you.
Anyway you slice it, we’ve had 6 deaths in Flagler county. 5 residents/1 non-resident. I don’t see Flu related deaths reported, I think her model does nothing more than continue to propagate the same weak argument for quarantine and economic shutdown in Flagler county. We are halfway thru month 6 of 2020, 6 deaths is still less than the CDC’s last reported Flu year of 21 for 2018 in Flagler county. As always, I don’t mean to discount or minimize any death from any cause. A life matters, and notice I didn’t ramble on about demographics here of the mix of races & genders. That matters little, we are talking about life & death here and what we as a society can come up with a cure, if that’s even possible. One thing I do know for certain 6 lives is normal death rate anywhere, people are born & die on the planet earth, so there is no cure for mortality. The other crimes & deaths a quarantine & economic shutdown create are not Coronavirus deaths, because the choice was to quarantine & economic shut down. If suicides are on the rise for financial hardship and a ruined life, those that forced quarantine & economic shut down signed those death warrants. If this is a true economic recession and Coronavirus is a fabricated, Chicken Little, we’re all going to die created cover up, that’s on leadership just the same and then the model she was fired for is the smoking gun per se.
” Rebekah Jones, a top Florida Department of Health data manager Gov. Ron DeSantis fired last month after Jones said she refused to manipulate and remove data from the state’s coronavirus dashboard.”
“A police report from Tallahassee Police shows a man claimed to be a victim of revenge porn by Rebekah Jones in June 2019. The man told police he had an injunction against Jones for a year until it recently expired. He said Jones posted a website, which included naked pictures of him, and shared it with his place of employment and family members. Jones pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor stalking charges.”
“The bottom line: Rebekah Jones was fired for performance issues, not for “refusing to manipulate data.” And her extensive criminal history, which predates her employment in Florida, lends credence to the DeSantis administration that she was just a troublesome employee who is now disgruntled and trying to get media attention about her firing. The easiest way to get media attention right now is to claim a Republican elected official is involved in a conspiracy to cover up COVID-19 data detrimental to reopening the state economy.
The media outlets listed above will not issue retractions. They will double down on the idea that DeSantis’s administration is withholding / manipulating / deleting / altering data. That, too is totally false. But mark these words, the embarrassment of touting Rebekah Jones as their coronavirus martyr will quickly fade into the mainstream media memory hole.”
Grab this before it disappears! Rebekah Jones’ site is: https://floridacovidaction.com/
Jane Gentile-Youd says
Very alarming that this deadly virus is considered by many to be a bunch of B.S whose scare tactics are a political ploy by the democratic party; that the only way to hide the frightening reality of a very real pandemic is to fire those who refuse to go along with this untruthful façade of lies by many Republicans, who are encouraging us to ignore this dangerous and now growing more than ever virus. I am a registered Republican and am ashamed our health, welfare and safety are of little or of no concern for far too many of my fellow party members. When we have an effective vaccine and not before will I feel ‘safe’ . This virus is not going away on its own no matter what B.S. we are being told.