Harassment and limited resources are leading to an exodus of local and state public health officials, experts at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said Wednesday at a panel convened by the school.
The conversation addressed challenges that public health officials have faced since the start of the pandemic, including the frequent problem of harassment by the public.
The most common forms of abuse faced by health officials, said Dr. Beth Resnick of the Hopkins school of public health, include threats against themselves, their families and staff; and protests at their homes. Other problems include backlash against public health protections and a lack of support from state and local elected officials. Much of the harassment has targeted women and minorities, Resnick said.
She and her colleagues assembled the data based on reports from the Associated Press, Kaiser Health News and their own research.
Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody is familiar with these forms of attempted intimidation.
"I’m still experiencing rather regular harassment," said Cody, a panel member. "That comes in the form of people coming to protest at my home, letters written in the paper, emails or other letters that are way outside the norms of what we would consider normal discourse and differences of opinion.
"I actually had a 24-7 protective detail for almost a year because of concerns about my safety and the safety of my family."
In addition, health officials face efforts to reduce their authority.
"As noted by a former local health officer, political disagreements and gamesmanship have contributed to increased disrespect and disdain for public health leaders, as well as calls for retraction of evidence-based public health guidance," researcher Paulani Mui said.
She noted that as of December, at least 24 states have introduced bills that would restrict the powers of government or public health officials at both the state and local level, including limits on quarantines, contact tracing, vaccine requirements and emergency executive powers. Some of those bills have failed, she said, while others are currently under consideration.
"Should these efforts succeed, health departments can lose legal authority that is essential for the protection of communities from disease and illness," Mui said.
Resnick and Mui said 190 local and state public health leaders resigned, retired or were fired from their positions from March 2020 to January 2021, and they believe that number is an undercount.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief deputy director for health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said these compounding difficulties have led to fatigue.
"Its frustration at doing the job with the meager resources that are available, plus this incredible new challenge of harassment, threats and other dangers," Khaldun said.
Panelists suggested a variety of solutions, such as creating a harassment monitoring system connected to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using existing laws or creating new ones to protect public health workers, and supporting investment in public health infrastructure with more staffing and modernization of data systems.