Reid Wilson writes in The Hill that health officials across the country are calling it quits in the midst of a global pandemic as otherwise below-the-radar public servants become the targets of anger and frustration in a hyperpartisan age.
Bio-Defense Network Note: This is not a new story, but one that saddens us as public health leaders feel increased pressure to bend to political pressures.
In some cases, government health officials have quit or been removed from their jobs after clashing with elected leaders.
New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot resigned this month after feuding with Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). Health officials in Texas, Indiana and Montana have quit in recent weeks after politicians overrode their advice on requiring masks and prohibiting public events.
In other states, health officials have been fired for data reporting errors. California’s public health director, Sonia Angell, quit suddenly this month after a software breakdown showed the state may have underreported the number of coronavirus infections. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) fired his public health commissioner, Cathy Slemp, over another reporting issue.
In the most troubling cases, public health officials have left their jobs after receiving threats. In Ohio last week, Amy Acton quit her post as Gov. Mike DeWine’s chief health adviser, two months after giving up her position as director of the state’s Department of Health. Armed demonstrators protested outside her home earlier this year.
A tally maintained by Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press finds that almost 50 state and local health officials have resigned, retired or been fired since April.
“To see this kind of really widespread resignations from critical roles at a time of great importance for our country ought to be a source for everyone to be concerned,” National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told The Hill in an interview. “I am very troubled to see that kind of turnover.”
Collins and other public health experts pinned blame on the heightened partisan atmosphere in America, one that has even infected the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“These are public servants who are trying their best to look at an unprecedented situation and make recommendations to keep people safe. Those recommendations unfortunately in our polarized society often take on some political spin, which I’m sure is not their intention, and results in a great deal of pressure upon those individuals to change their opinions,” Collins said. “Some of them are getting vicious attacks or even threats to themselves or their families. That is really heartbreaking.”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, has received so many threats that he now has a security detail. In interviews, Fauci has said people have even threatened his adult daughters.
“Because things have gotten so political and partisan, state health officials have become controversial,” said Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health. “It’s unusual for us to be in the press every day and the targets of partisan attacks, so I think that has taken its toll on state health officials.”
At the local level, and especially in areas controlled by Republican elected officials, health experts have quit in frustration when county executives or commissioners have refused to follow their advice.
In Fishers, Ind., epidemiologist Eileen White resigned Sunday after pressure from Mayor Scott Fadness (R), who she said was pushing to open schools before the area got coronavirus infections under control.
“This is a level of interference I had never seen before in a public health agency,” White told the Indianapolis Star.
In Ravalli County, Mont., public health officer Carol Calderwood resigned in July after county commissioners refused to enforce a public mask mandate ordered by Gov. Steve Bullock (D).
“Once the governor put out the directive, I feel that it’s not compliant with it to make it optional. I thought that that was enough of a difference between our positions,” Calderwood told the Bitter Root Star. “It’s dangerous at this time when the science is coming out that the masking does make a difference in a pandemic where things can escalate, where masking can still perhaps change our local curve.”
Anger at public health officials, Collins said, comes from a misconception that there is a choice to be made between prioritizing solving the public health catastrophe and the economic damage that has already occurred.
“The idea that you have to either pick to support the economy or pick public health measures is so upside down. The public health measures are going to help us get our economy going again,” he said. “They are a pathway towards getting our schools started up again. And yet somehow in many of these situations these are pitted against each other in a way that causes a great deal of anger and resentment and political furor to kick in.”