Geopolitics

In their own words: public health officials on the front lines

Public health officials work to keep the nation safe and healthy, overseeing everything from water inspections to vaccinations for children.

They usually work behind the scenes, but the coronavirus pandemic has put many in the spotlight. Sharp political divisions in the United States have sparked a backlash. Many public health officials face harassment, threats, and legal proceedings as they work to fight the COVID-19 onslaught.

For some, the constant pressure and recoil has become too much. Research by The Associated Press and KHN found that at least 181 state and local health officials in 38 states have resigned, retired or fired since the pandemic began, the largest exodus of public health executives in U.S. history . Additionally, efforts are now under way to strip their state health powers both in state legislatures and in courts.

AP and KHN spoke to public health officials across the country about the challenges they have faced in their work this year.

Linda Vail, 59, health officer for the Ingham County Health Department in Michigan, said support from elected officials and the community made it possible to stay at work despite death threats.

“I get hate email. You say, “We’re going to put you down like the governor,” and you know what that means in the face of the kidnapping threat. But among the most worrying ones I received an envelope at my home. Typed in. My name and my home address. And I opened it and inside there is an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper that shows a Nazi soldier with a swastika and a democratic donkey. It said, “It’s not fascism if we do it.” …

“I could retire at any time. I will do the right thing. “

Dr. Oxiris Barbot, 55, left her job as New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner after she and Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio argued over control of the virus response.

“Our job was to make sure nothing went wrong. And when you have a mission like this, you become invisible and people take the work you do for granted and then they may not understand the work you do. …

“My concern for the front lines in public health (workers) is the same as my concern for the front line health workers. Law? The only difference in my mind is that the health care workers are more visible in terms of the extent to which they are at a breaking point. But public health workers are at the same breaking point, but they are just more invisible. “

Kelly Aberasturi, 62, a commissioner in Owyhee County, Idaho, has served on the board of directors of Southwest District Health for 10 years and believes the media has overwritten the dangers of the coronavirus in order to violate President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

“I don’t believe in mandates. I would never put a mandate on anyone. As an elected official, my job is to do what the citizens want. Citizens in my district are at least – at least – 80% against masks. …

“You have a bunch of citizens out here who don’t trust what’s going on and are very confused about what’s going on because none of it makes sense, because the information isn’t consistent. …

“Do I like my doctor? Do I think he’s doing a great job? Absolutely. Do I trust what the medical field will bring out there? No.”

Tisha Coleman, 47, the Linn County, Kansas health department has been harassed and sued for ignoring her health recommendations.

“It’s frustrating because we’re the professionals when it comes to health and that’s our job. …

“We’re a small community and I’d say politics was a big part of it. … Everyone has an opinion and their opinion is gold. And there is so much misinformation out there that people just grab the misinformation and run with it. …

“I just want people to understand that we are human too, we have feelings too. And we do our best with the information we have, trying to keep people safe and secure. “

Karen Koenemann, 49, stepped down from her position as Public Health Director in Pitkin County, Colorado, where Aspen is supervised, after realizing it was always Groundhog Day.

“I’ve worked eight months, 12 hours a day, seven days a week – I’m really burned out, really burned out. …

“I see the pandemic as the ultra marathon that we had to run at a sprint pace. And we went into this emaciated ultra marathon, we didn’t train well for it, we didn’t have the strength to do it. …

“Every day I do my best and give so much, so much of myself for this job and this community. And all I get is criticism and it was just like, “Why am I doing this?” Life is too short.”

Related Articles