Around the U.S., dozens of state and local public health leaders have been fired or resigned amid the coronavirus outbreak. This is after being vilified, threatened with violence, and in some cases suffering from burnout. For example, on Sunday, following a technical glitch that caused a delay in reporting hundreds of thousands of virus test results, a California’s public health director, Dr. Sonia Angell, was fired.
After months of friction with the Police Department and City Hall, the New York City’s health commissioner was replaced last week. They are among the 49 state and local public health leaders who have been fired, resigned or retired since April across 23 states. The number is stunning, according to Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He added that they show burnout and attacks on public health experts and institutions from the highest levels of government.
Frieden stated that in the U.S, the general tone toward public health is so hostile that it has encouraged individuals to make these attacks. The former West Virginia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Cathy Slemp stated that for the last few months, it has been”frustrating, tiring and disheartening” for public health officials. Moreover, Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, indicated that the departures are coming at a time when public health expertise is needed more than ever.
Freeman added that people are moving at breakneck speed to stop a pandemic, and changing the political leadership could be no choice. The United States has the highest infection in the world, with over 5 million, with deaths topping 163,000.
Freeman added that most of the firings and resignations have to do with conflicts over mask orders or social distancing shutdowns. Most of the politicians argued that such measures are not needed, no matter what health experts tell them despite the scientific evidence.
Freeman also confirmed that it is not a health divide but a political divide. Some health officials said they left for jobs to other agencies, such as the CDC, while others were stepping down for family reasons. Some were ousted because of what was perceived to be ‘poor leadership or a failure to do their job’ while others complained that they were overworked, underpaid, or unappreciated. According to Dr. Matt Willis, health officer for Marin County in Northern California, this shows a lack of a real national response plan.
Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that some officials in small communities had been the subject of sexist attacks on social media; they have received death threats and intimidation and seen their home addresses published. Fauci noted that his wife and daughters have received threats. In Ohio, Dr. Amy Acton, the state’s health director, resigned in June after months of pressure. This was after the Republican lawmakers tried to strip her of her authority and armed protesters showed up at her house. Moreover, the executive director of the Las Animas-Huerfano Counties District Health Department in Colorado found her car vandalized twice.
The governor of West Virginia forced Slemp’s resignation after accusing her of discrepancies in the data. Slemp reiterated by saying this was as a result of outdated technology like fax machines and slow computer networks and the issue amounted to a clerical error easily fixed. Also, Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins, stated that he was deeply concerned that public health officials who told “uncomfortable truths” to political leaders had been removed.