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Why Demonize Public Health Officials for Doing Their Job?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
July 20, 2020 

The signs have popped up since the start of the pandemic on lawns, bill boards and store fronts. “We love our health care workers,” or similar expressions of appreciation dot the landscape. But such gestures are empty if our failure to wear masks and social distance increases the risk to those workers we profess to love.

When we fail to follow CDC guidelines, and fail to speak out when we see abuses, we are helping to spread the virus, causing more people to get sick and adding to the work and danger of those on the front lines of healthcare. We might also be causing serious illness or death among those who work to make us well, those our signs profess to love.

An even more serious concern is the demonization of those who work in the field of public health.  It’s mostly a, “Kill the messenger,” phenomenon.  Public health officials are advising policy makers on steps to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this era of division in our country, political motives are ascribed to those who make the recommendations for masks, distancing or advising against large gatherings when they are simply procedures recommended by science.  Public health officials are accused of infringing on personal freedom when, in reality, they are seeking personal responsibility to protect society, especially those at greatest risk, from getting seriously ill, or dying.

In 2016, well before the COVID-19 Pandemic, Edward Hunter wrote in The Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, “Among professionals in public health, the political system is commonly viewed as a subway’s third rail: avoid touching it, lest you get burned. Yet it is this third rail that provides power to the train, and achieving public health goals depends on a sustained, constructive engagement between public health and political systems.”

Hunter noted that, “Many of the top public health achievements have been achieved through such engagement, yet mutual suspicion and historically complex working relationships have led to immeasurable lost opportunities. Public health champions are quick to point to examples where, ‘Politics trumps science,’ and politicians point to ‘overreach’ by public health agencies and advocates. Both sides would benefit from a new working relationship that puts suspicion and old habits in the past to generate opportunities to save lives and money.” It’s not just political leaders who argue against, or ignore, public health recommendations to save lives.

Their followers, who often influence the leaders, take an even more aggressive level of disagreement. An article published by the Kaiser Health Network entitled Public Health Officials Face Wave of Threats, Pressure Amid Coronavirus Response, stated, “Officials who usually work behind the scenes managing everything from immunizations to water quality inspections have found themselves center stage. Elected officials and members of the public who are frustrated with the lockdowns and safety restrictions have at times turned public health workers into politicized punching bags, battering them with countless angry calls and even physical threats.” The article noted that public opposition, threats and disagreement on when to relax public health guidelines led to the firing of the county health director. Other public health officials are being bullied into leaving by threats of harm.

As recently as June 22, 2020, the Washington Post reported, “Amid threats and political pushback, public health officials are leaving their posts.” Reporters Rachel Weiner and Ariana Eunjung Cha wrote that, “Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said more than 20 health officials have resigned, retired or been fired in recent weeks due to conditions relative to have to enforce and stand up for strong public health tactics during the pandemic.”

The Post article went on to quote: “Marcus Plescia, Chief Medical Officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said attacks on health officials have been particularly awful in California, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.”

Threats to inflict physical injury are not currently prosecutable under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which requires at least an actual attempt to cause bodily harm. Threats may be prosecutable, however, under the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 (18 USC 245), Conspiracy Against Rights (18 USC 241), Conspiracy Against Rights 18 USC 241.

If we are to offer reasonable protections to public health officials who are trying to do their jobs and protect the health of the general population, it may be time to cover threats to inflict physical injury under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and to make it clear that such crimes are prosecutable under the Civil Rights Act.


Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He also served in Washington, DC as Associate Director of FEMA in the Clinton Administration and as a Presidential Elector in 1992. A former college administrator and adjunct assistant professor of government at Bentley University and Bridgewater State University, Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. [email protected]

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One Response to Why Demonize Public Health Officials for Doing Their Job?

  1. Burden S Lundgren, MPH, PhD, RN Reply

    July 24, 2020 at 9:40 pm

    I don’t pretend to be a lawyer, nor am I familiar with criminal law, but I did spend the second half of my career in public health including time spent as a federal regulator. Certainly threats of the kind cited in the column should be punishable, but I am not sure why public health workers should be singled out as a special, protected class subject to hate crime laws. Why not tax collectors or building inspectors?

    In any case, I doubt that the people who are threatening public health workers are weighing the legal consequences, so I have doubts as to the effectiveness of this intervention in any case.

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