There’s a mountain of evidence showing the devastating toll of the pandemic on health workers. Now, new research lays bare the brutal impact on their counterparts in public health.
To capture the experience of public health officials during the pandemic, researchers scoured data from a national survey of local health department workers and combed through media reports of attacks. They turned up nearly 1,500 different instances of harassment against public health workers between March 2020 and January 2021, and also found at least 222 public health officials left their jobs during that time frame.
The survey results were troubling: Health officials said they were personally attacked, villainized, and their experiences often marginalized. Their work was, at best, underappreciated, and, at worst, blamed for broader problems. Of those who said they’d experienced harassment, 24% reported facing backlash on social media; 6% said they had received personally targeted messages; 6% said they received threats to their own safety or their family’s; and 2% said their personal information was publicly shared online, a type of attack known as doxxing.
“I get threatening messages from people saying they are watching me. They followed my family to the park and took pictures of my kids,” one official quoted in the study said. “I know it’s my job to be out front talking about the importance of public health — educating people, keeping them safe. Now it kind of scares me… when they start photographing my family in public, I have to think is it worth it?”
That official resigned a year later, one of scores of public health officials who stepped down from their roles during the pandemic. Others who stayed in their jobs reported a wide range of impacts. Some said they’d grown disillusioned as work they once saw as a valuable public service came under fire as partisan maneuvering. Others said they had grown frustrated as they were forced to become “the face of an imperfect response,” or “the leader of an attack on personal liberties.”
Beth Resnick, a study author and health policy researcher at Johns Hopkins, said that in some cases, community health officials bore the brunt of anger for state level policies that they didn’t play a hand in crafting. “They were being held accountable for policies that they didn’t even know were going to happen,” Resnick said. She and her colleagues found this was particularly common in rural communities.
The study also suggests that a lack of clear communication could be a contributing factor. Some health officials surveyed said that they turned to social media to help fill an information gap during the pandemic. This also put them at the forefront of public backlash. Many public health officials reported frequent harassment on social media, including serious personal threats.
Resnick said there needs to be a clearer line drawn between what’s considered discourse and what’s considered a threat or intimidation. “There should be more legal consequences for impeding people from trying to do their jobs, especially government officials,” she said.
“No public health employee should be made to feel unsafe or devalued for doing their job, ” she added.
Resnick raises solutions that could help bring the escalating situation under control, starting with more research on the topic. She said there’s a pressing need for better incident reporting systems, more robust policies to protect the workforce, and, more broadly, investments in infrastructure and staffing to reduce the burdens on already strained officials. Resnick also mentioned there’s a coalition in the works — which will include law enforcement such as the FBI — to address the issue.
As she noted, the issue is “not necessarily going to go away once Covid is over. The harder question is long term: What does this actually mean for the field, and how are we going to make sure we are better prepared for next time?”
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