• The San Juan Daily Star

Public health officials in the US need federal protection from abuse and threats, national group say

Dr. Allison Berry, the health officer for Clallam County, Wash., has received death threats over her pandemic response work. She attended a briefing about Covid-19 in Port Angeles, Wash., in September.

By Danielle Ivory and Mike Baker

The Justice Department must help protect public health officials across the country who have been threatened with violence and harassment during the pandemic, a group representing nearly 3,000 local health departments said.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday, requesting that a recent federal effort to protect school board members, teachers and other school employees be expanded to include local health officials as well.

The letter cited a report by The New York Times examining hundreds of health departments, including some in every state, and finding that the United States may be less well prepared for the next pandemic than it was for the current one.

Threats, intimidation and harassment have become commonplace experiences for local health officials, The Times found. Many of the officials said they had installed security cameras, had started carrying pepper spray, or were getting police patrols at their houses.

Public meetings have turned into battlefields. More than 100 hours of video from local meetings, viewed by The Times, showed that officials who were making decisions about pandemic restrictions were often the target of vitriol from members of the public.

The Times has identified more than 500 top health officials who left their jobs in the past 19 months, in part because of abuse and threats.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed more than 26,000 state, tribal, local and territorial public health workers and reported in July that about 23% of the respondents said they felt bullied, threatened or harassed because of work, and that about 12% said they had received job-related threats.

Garland directed the FBI and U.S. attorney’s offices earlier this month to meet with federal, state, tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders and discuss strategies for addressing a disturbing trend of threats and abuse toward public school officials.

The Justice Department also said it would create specialized training and guidance for local school boards and school administrators to help understand how to report threats and to preserve evidence of threatening conduct.

The letter from the national group representing city and county health officials said that threats and acts of violence against public health officials were having profound effects on their families.

“Some have had to move to driving unmarked cars, or adding at-home security cameras,” the letter said. “Others have had to rely on police escorts and round-the-clock security, while others changed their children’s behavior, worried about if they will be targeted instead.”

The letter said that a health director in Michigan was almost run off the road by an angry individual.

“We don’t want to have to wait for a full-blown tragedy,” said Adriane Casalotti, the group’s chief of public and government affairs.

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