Acting in the best interests of our communities can sometimes make public health practitioners unpopular figures; pushback to the decisions we make for the greater good is not uncommon or unexpected. However, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged during an intensely divisive political climate, and state and local health officials have been confronted with an unprecedented level of professional and personal attacks and harassment.
To slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and protect the people we serve, public health leaders have implemented critical measures such as issuing stay-at-home orders and restricting large gatherings. All too often, doing our jobs has made us targets of harassment at our workplaces and homes, with menacing e-mails, phone calls, letters, and verbal attacks. Many of us have even received death threats.1
Since the onset of the pandemic, nearly 250 state and local public health officials have stepped down or been fired from their positions.2 The stress of undue harassment and political interference combined with the trauma of the pandemic has prevented many committed professionals from serving their communities to the fullest extent.
Despite the contempt we often face, we are not helpless. By leveraging the strength of our networks and communities and advocating for ourselves, we can rise above this onslaught. With the following suggestions for dealing with harassment, public health officials can better care for and protect themselves, and, in effect, better support their communities.
Even the most innocuous public health guidelines can spur backlash. Assume that there will be resistance to sound, evidence-based guidance and prepare accordingly.
Practitioners should assess their privacy risks and determine what personal information is accessible online. If you discover that your personal information (or that of family members) is readily available online, consider hiring a service to scrub your personal information from the Internet.
Consult with your local law enforcement to understand how to handle suspicious e-mail, physical mail, or verbal communications and how to report it and/or collect it as evidence for future need. Also consider using a security detail if one is available to you or advocating for one if you feel unsafe. Although you may relinquish simple freedoms such as running errands alone, the added protection can give you and your family peace of mind.
Block Out Noise
Leading a public health agency, especially during such an intense period, requires sharp focus. Although it is wise to stay informed of credible threats, allow yourself to tune out noise such as ad hominem attacks on social media or in the comments section of news articles. These distractions serve no purpose other than to wear you down. Consider appointing a trusted colleague or a media team, if you have one, to monitor your social media accounts to separate threats from criticism. You may also want to temporarily make your public social media accounts private or at least turn off notifications.
Lean on Community
Look to community members outside the public health realm to be your allies. In Santa Clara County, other government leaders including the County Counsel and County Executive have been fierce defenders of the employees of the public health department, as have leaders of nonprofit organizations. In your community, your advocates might include small business owners, educators, or religious leaders. Their title is not as important as their opposition to the harassment of public health practitioners. The more people you have in your corner, the better.
Find Time to Recharge
Burnout is expected in a crisis of the scale and duration of the pandemic, and the vitriol public health practitioners are experiencing has sped up the onset of severe exhaustion. If we want to stay in the game, we have to prioritize our mental, emotional, and physical health. Months of being in a reactive mode has prevented us from slowing down to reflect on the enormity of this crisis and manage our holistic health. Taking time off—without your work cell phone or laptop—can help you return to work refreshed and energized; doing so is not a luxury. Also keep in mind that when you take a break, you signal to colleagues that your organization values and encourages self-care.
Engage With Peers
You are not going through these hardships alone, and professionals across the field of public health can be a source of encouragement. Along with my health department and other county colleagues, as a public health official in Santa Clara County, I have found camaraderie among members of the Association of Bay Area Health Officers, the Big Cities Health Coalition, and alumni of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service. The peer networks from which you derive strength may also be rooted in your location or work history or comprise a mix of professionals who have been supportive over your career. Make a point to have regular check-ins with the peers who uplift you. These relationships will sustain you as we emerge from the pandemic and well into the future.
Focus on the Wins
It is unquestionable that the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to our communities, businesses, and families across the country. But as we mourn these losses and do everything we can to address their consequences, we can and should celebrate our accomplishments. Internally and externally, communicate the ways that your organization’s actions have saved lives and have gotten us closer to recovery. Sharing this impact can boost staff morale and document the value of the public health workforce for all Americans.
Public health officials and their agencies should not be forced to choose between doing their jobs and keeping themselves and their families safe. But because we find ourselves in this position, we should use all the resources at our disposal to cope.
When our public health officials are threatened, communities suffer. We must protect the authority of public health officials to make evidence-based decisions that are in the best interests of population health, free from harassment and political interference.
1. Barry-Jester AM. We’re coming for you: for public health officials, a year of threats and menace. Kaiser Health News. April 25, 2021. https://khn.org/news/article/public-health-officials-year-of-threats-menace-santa-cruz-california. Accessed April 28, 2021.
2. Smith MR, Weber L, Recht H. Public health experts worry about boom-bust cycle of support. Associated Press/Kaiser Health News. April 19, 2021. https://khn.org/news/article/public-health-experts-worry-about-boom-bust-cycle-of-support. Accessed April 28, 2021.
This column first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice. See the final authenticated version.