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More than half of local public health departments were harassed during COVID, survey finds

Emma Winowiecki

From social media backlash to threats to their family's safety, more than half of all local public health departments say they experienced some kind of harassment during the first year of the pandemic. That’s according to a new survey from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which included responses by more 580 departments, and documented nearly 1,500 “harassment experiences” as well as 222 position departures.

“General social media backlash” was by far the most common form of harassment, including messages directed at an individual leader and doxing (when someone’s private home or contact information is publicly distributed.) And 15% reported receiving threats to their own or their family’s safety, with a few saying that public or personal property had been vandalized.

Norm Hess, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, isn’t surprised. “If anything, I would have expected the numbers to be higher, if we were just talking about Michigan,” he said Friday.

Most incidents aren’t as extreme as the ones that make news, like someone allegedly trying to drive Kent County Health Department health officer Adam London off the road, or when a man tried to perform a citizen’s arrest of Barry-Eaton District health officer Colette Scrimger. But nearly all health officials have experienced it, “both sort of subtly as well as very overtly. I think that I would say that most of our health department staff have had at least one encounter with the public that was outside the norm.”

Local health department employees feel “villainized” in their own communities, the researchers found, when previously they were “trusted public servants.”

“For two years, this has just been something that we have never experienced before,” Hess said. “I think that for health department staff, the idea that some people blame them for what's happened, or blame the actions that they took for making things worse, as far as mask mandates and making children wear masks in schools, that is really hurtful.”

But what’s actually driving people out of the field of public health may be more nuanced. It’s not a direct line between someone’s kid getting harassed at school over their dad “shutting down restaurants” to a health official resigning, researchers found.

Rather, the pandemic brought on a broader wave of disillusionment, including increased political pressure to do what’s popular, regardless of whether it’s good public health. That included “masking policies…being perceived as oppositional to economic interests,” or department funding being tied to “continued political favor with the governor,” according to survey respondents. And they're underfunded. One worker in the national survey described it as a system "of matchsticks and scotch tape."

“We're seeing it as people are leaving their positions at the highest levels in the health department, and then all at all levels of the organization,” Hess said. “So even as people are leaving those director positions, the folks that they were counting on to come in behind them may have already left the health department because of the conflict.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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