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Why Public Health Officials Are Quitting During a Pandemic

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  • Why Public Health Officials Are Quitting During a Pandemic

    Around the country, more than two-dozen top public health officials have left their jobs in recent weeks. If combating coronavirus wasn't stressful enough, several have received death threats or seen protests outside their homes.


    Nichole Quick had had enough. As the chief health officer in Orange County, Calif., she issued an order requiring face masks. At a hearing in May, nearly a hundred people spoke out against the order. Quick’s home address and the name of her boyfriend were read aloud by one speaker, while Quick was threatened with gun violence.

    Quick was assigned a security detail, but still decided to resign her position earlier this month. She is not alone. Across the country, more than two-dozen top public health officials have resigned, retired or been fired since April, including half a dozen each in Colorado and California (with three in Orange County alone). No fewer than eight state health directors have quit, although two of those were long-planned retirements.
    Across the country, health officials have been met with armed protesters at their homes and been subjected to anti-Semitic or transphobic slurs. On social media, they encounter posts that include phrases such as “let’s start shooting” and “bodies swinging from trees.” As the nation faces its gravest health challenge in more than a century, many leaders in public health are reluctantly leaving the field.

    “It’s unfortunate that the death threats and the politicization of public health have been this severe,” says Michael Fraser, chief executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “The death threats and anti-Semitism and protests outside of their houses and transphobia are really unprecedented.”

    When the Pandemic Is Political

    Many health officials have played a prominent role during the pandemic, standing alongside governors and mayors at news conferences. Still, to a degree, they find themselves playing a secondary role. During previous health crises, such as Zika, Ebola and anthrax, nearly all public communications were handled by physicians, from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on down.

    This time, the public face of the response has been more political, from the White House to governors. That has helped make the pandemic appear more political — and thus more divisive — than previous outbreaks. “Whether it’s nationally or locally, many people view the pandemic we’re experiencing as a political issue, rather than a public health issue,” says Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner for the city of Columbus.

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