Attacks on Public Health Officials During COVID-19 |

The unimaginable seems to be spreading almost as fast at Covid-19.  Public health officials have reported death threats to themselves and/or their families

(On June 24, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom remarked on a disturbing phenomenon: health officers are “getting attacked, getting death threats, they’re being demeaned and demoralized.”1 At least 27 health officers in 13 states (including Nichole Quick of Orange County in southern California, Ohio Health Director Amy Acton, and West Virginia Health Officer Cathy Slemp) have resigned or been fired since the start of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Across the US, health officers have been subject to doxing (publishing private information to facilitate harassment), angry and armed protesters at their personal residences, vandalism, and harassing telephone calls and social media posts, some threatening bodily harm and necessitating private security details.1) 

The present harassment of health officials for proposing or taking steps to protect communities from COVID-19 is extraordinary in its scope and nature, use of social media, and danger to the ongoing pandemic response. It reflects a misunderstanding of the pandemic, biases in human risk perception, and a general decline in public civility. Some of these cases resist easy fixes, but elected officials and health officials can take certain actions to help address the problem.

Today’s increasingly routine harassment and threats against health officials have much in common with growing resistance to childhood vaccination. Since the 2015 measles outbreak that focused attention on vaccine policy, individuals opposed to vaccination mandates have attacked health officials and legislators online or in-person in Oregon, Washington, New York, New Jersey, and Colorado. For example, in 2019, protesters threw blood onto California legislators from the Senate gallery; State Senator Richard Pan received death threats and was physically assaulted. Some of the same groups, joined by other individuals frustrated with public health officials, are now actively resisting efforts to require masks, reinstitute business closures, and prepare for COVID-19 vaccination, jeopardizing the eventual acceptance of vaccines.2

What explains the unprecedented hostility to public health officials during COVID-19? Although acceptance of public health orders for COVID-19 is often framed as a “red vs blue” issue, even libertarians accept that liberty may be curtailed when its exercise harms others. However, people’s ability to perceive such harm can be undermined by decisional biases known to affect human thinking.3 Omission bias creates a preference for risks associated with doing nothing (ie, letting the virus spread) over those linked to affirmative acts, such as public health orders. Distance bias and optimism bias may be operating for those who believe COVID-19 will not seriously affect them or their loved ones. In an information space flooded with conflicting information, confirmation bias allows some people to dismiss evidence that does not comport with their preexisting beliefs.

Today I attended a meeting online with Sanjay Gupta MD (CNN correspondent) and Anthony Fauci M.D. a member of the Task Force Coordinators for the White House.  He mentioned that he hired security consultants to assure the safety of his family.  Fauci has been working 20 hour days for several months. He does not seem unusually stressed by events looking youthful and bright-eyed despite his birthdays.  He is three years older than I am and looks ten years younger. Sanjay Gupta asked how he does it.  Fauci replied it was due to the extensive every other night and weekend routines of internship and residency back in the day before regulations were put in place to prevent such "abuse" claimed by today's trainees.  Fauci seemed non-plussed about current events, perplexed about today's attitudes about government and scientists. Sanjay Gupta seemed worried and asked if he (Fauci) had a succession plan for his eventual exit from NIH, he went on to say as long as he was at the top of his game, there were no plans to exit the NIH, adding his wife would guide him when to pack it in.  

Fauci has no danger of being fired having been selected and appointed by a committee of peers at NIH and national scientific experts. Trump no longer asks Fauci nor Dr. Birx to appear with him to bolster his weak positions.

Despite the pandemic I know we would be much worse off had Fauci not been present. It is all relative, we have to work with what we have, and have no wishful thinking, we should have done this or that.   The present situation is like the perfect storm a collision of events that we must ride out to survive.  The present political division adds fuel to the storm.  The captain of the ship is indisposed, and the executive officers must take over.  We do have very competent experts in many departments, and loyalties to the captain aside intelligent people must ignore bad commands.  That is a major problem as well as conflicting orders from governors, mayors, and other local representatives. 

Fauci's plans include the rapid timely delivery of test logistics and vaccines. Although he indicated he hopes he will not be around for the next pandemic he assured us all that there would be another pandemic as sure as this one was predicted.  He emphasized the importance of lessons learned and investing in technology, and logistics to be ready for the next one.

Attacks on Public Health Officials During COVID-19 | Infectious Diseases | JAMA | JAMA Network