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Public Health Officers Across Country Are Being Verbally Attacked, Threatened

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Around the country, a number of public health officials have resigned, retired or been fired, some after being verbally attacked or threatened in response to their repeated warnings of the crucial importance of wearing masks, social distancing and delayed reopening in slowing the spread of coronavirus.

Speaker 1: 00:00 As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on frustration grows over the restrictions that health officials say are essential to defeating the virus around the country. A number of public health officials have resigned, retired, or been fired coming under pressure for their repeated warnings of the crucial importance of wearing masks, social distancing, and delayed reopening here in San Diego County, a speaker at the County supervisor's meeting yesterday, attacked public health officer dr. Wilmer Wooten and publicly gave out her home address. The County has declined to comment on the issue of harassment, where this is a reporter who has written about how public health officials around the country are coming under assault for their input on how to respond to the pandemic. Anna Maria Barry gesture is senior correspondent for California health lane and Kaiser health news. Thanks for joining us, Anna Maria, thank you for having me. So now what's happening here in San Diego is a reflection of events and other counties and other States, uh, dr.

Speaker 1: 00:59 Wootton has not acknowledged any other threats on her personally, and she continues to focus on providing updates and advice, you know, about the pandemic, but your reporting suggests a number of other public health officials have left their posts since the pandemic began. Why? Yeah, unfortunately this is somewhat of a national trend. Um, you know, the long and short of it is that these are officials are under enormous pressure. So in many cases they're experiencing threats, personal attacks, those sorts of things, but they're also working incredibly long hours. I've talked to numerous health officials across the country who haven't taken a day off since February, you know, they're responsible for speaking to businesses, to the public, to elected officials, they're writing health orders. They're trying to keep up with the science, which is changing daily and the stress is extraordinary. And when you add on top of that, the physical and personal threats, I think it's, it's just very daunting for people who are working extremely hard, under pretty tough conditions.

Speaker 1: 01:54 Yes. Dr. Barbara Ferrera, the director of the Los Angeles County department of public health issued a statement on Monday of this week, condemning attacks on public health directors and disclosing that she faced repeated threats to her safety. So, uh, has your reporting shown that California has, has seen it share more or less of these attacks than other States trend in, in many States started with 27 officials in 13 States. We wrote about it a week ago and it's only gone up since then, but California does seem to be experiencing a fairly large number of, of these instances and it is a large state, but it seems disproportionate even to the size. I think one thing that was very striking to me was in dr. First statement. She said, not only that she'd experienced these threats, but that one of the reasons that she does the briefings to the media and public herself is to shield her staff from the threats and harassment.

Speaker 1: 02:43 So she's taking them very seriously. So 27 officials in 13 States have what left their positions? Why were they, did they resign? Were they fired? They retired, resigned, or, you know, were asked to resign. And actually the number has grown since then, national who represent public health leaders say they're, they're deeply troubled and also are aware of multiple other people who may resign in future weeks. It's quite troubling. Talk about what's sparking these attacks. Where are they coming from? These are officials who are tasked with making best recommendations to keep the public healthy. Um, in the case of health officers in California, they actually have the legal right to write orders and times of outbreaks and epidemics and require the public to restrict their movements. Things like this. One of the things that's been very contentious lately is the question of face coverings. And there are people who don't like to be told what to do and feel that it's an overreach or unnecessary.

Speaker 1: 03:37 It's tricky. The science is that it's changing all the time and people are trying to make their best recommendations. You know, then there's elected officials who are tasked with thinking also about the economy and other things. And so sometimes those things collide. How prevalent do you think the feelings are that are spurring these attacks? You know, it can take a small group of people who are very vocal and in the case of California are showing up to board of supervisors, meetings, and things can seem much noisier than it is when you look at polling by and large Californians are very proud of the state's response and they are in agreement with, um, a slower opening restrictions on movement and things like face coverings, San Diego County spokesman, Michael Workman declined yesterday to discuss the issue of the harassment of dr. Wooten with reporters at the San Diego union Tribune.

Speaker 1: 04:26 But he did say, quote, continued focus on this irrational behavior has only exacerbated the problem. We will continue to focus on the public's health and the woman who had talked up to it. And at the meeting told reporters that she got a call from the Sheriff's department to check that she had no ill intent. Have other areas responded to these threats in any way, or they'd done anything to, to respond to possible causes. Yes, there are multiple officials who have security details, unfortunately, and I will say one thing that's interesting is officials say they expect criticism of their policies. That's quite normal. What concerns them is the very personal attacks on individuals and questioning their motivations expertise, patriotism, you know, elected officials appoint these people. And so there is a democratic process by which to, you know, look at their jobs and how well they're doing.

Speaker 1: 05:17 Um, and, and they just are very concerned by the personal attacks. How are people expressing their frustrations? I mean, what, what sort of tactics are they using? Is this tactic of giving out, uh, UN officials home address in public? Is that a common tactic? So that happened in orange County. There have been multiple counties where large numbers of people have shown up to, um, County officials meetings to speak in mass against particular things like face coverings. There has been several instances when large crowds have shown up at the homes of health officials and protested outside. It ranges quite a bit, but the, the death threats are unfortunately somewhat common and people are, are concerned. No, dr. Anthony Fowchee is an example of a health official who is sticking to his guns, even though his message is not always endorsed by his boss. And in the case of San Diego County, dr.

Speaker 1: 06:09 Wooten has urged caution and reopening, and she has the support of the majority of the board of supervisors. But some members of the boards specifically, or North County representatives would like to see more businesses open up faster, are public health officials being caught in the crossfire about how to handle the pandemic. Yes. You know, there's lots of competing interests here. People are of course, very concerned about the economy and want people to be able to get back to their jobs. Unfortunately, we're seeing a very large increase in cases in California, as things open up and some of that's to be expected, you know, people more movement, more, more cases. But in several counties, officials have told us in the last week that the cases are increasing at a much higher rate than they expected or had hoped for. And so, you know, health officials are tasked with making recommendations about how to keep the public healthy.

Speaker 1: 06:58 And in many cases that means slowing the opening, doing it in phases so that they can understand the impact of various decisions around opening and then also keeping distance and wearing face coverings. But some of those have not been particularly popular. What's the implication of many longtime public health officials leaving their posts at this time. That's a great question and is of great concern, particularly at a national level, there is not a deep well of expertise in this area. You know, public health is a science. Um, it takes great training in California. Health officers are required to have a medical degree, but you also have additional training in public health, which is, is quite different from medicine. And there is not, not a huge number of people to draw from. And so there's a lot of concern that even in cases where it's people, people are retiring early, maybe they haven't been pushed out. Maybe it isn't due to threats, but we're losing that expertise. And there's not necessarily a, you know, a new, um, class of people ready to step in and fill those shoes. And we are still in the middle of a pandemic. We've been speaking with Anna Maria Barry jester, who is senior correspondent for California health line and Kaiser health news. Thank you so much, Anna Maria, thank you for having me.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.