The Current

U.S. public health officials facing threats to their lives over COVID-19 response, says association

In at least one state south of the border, public health officials are under attack for what critics say is government overreach, according to Theresa Anselmo, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials.

'We are starting to see the folks really coming out about their civil liberties,' says executive director

Denver paramedics and firefighters wear face masks while listening to an announcement that the City and County of Denver in May 2020. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

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In several states south of the border, public health officials are under attack, with some facing death threats, says the head of an association representing the sector.

Theresa Anselmo, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, says 80 per cent of the 53 members she represents have reported threats from citizens.

"Anything from personal slander and property damage, to starting a civil war with hot shooting guns," she said.

While some Canadian public health officials have been commended as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, others, including Canada's chief public health officer Theresa Tam, have faced racist and xenophobic comments.

For officials who are typically behind the scenes, the newfound scrutiny on their work can be challenging. According to the Associated Press, 27 local public health officials in 13 states have resigned, retired or been fired since April.

Emily Brown, director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department in rural Colorado, says she was fired when county commissioners disagreed with continued restrictions amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Theresa Anselmo/CALPHO via The Associated Press)

Emily Brown, director of Rio Grande County Public Health Department in rural Colorado, told the Associated Press that she was fired last month when county commissioners disagreed with continued restrictions amid the ongoing pandemic.

"They finally were tired of me not going along the line they wanted me to go along," she said.

Anselmo spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about how the threats are affecting officials in the state, and what it could mean for the spread of COVID-19.

Here is part of that conversation.

What is the effect of that on you and on your staff? 

I will tell you that it is extremely demoralising. It is stressful as far as the concern for one's own safety, for the safety of the people that you work with, particularly in the state of Colorado, where two-thirds of our counties are either rural or frontier. 

When it's your neighbours making these threats, and very publicly making these threats on social media or in public meetings, I can't imagine the feeling of stress that those individuals experience simply because they have to go to the grocery store. And their kids may play sports or go to elementary school with these people's children that are making these threats to them. 

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Why are people being threatened with property damage or starting a civil war? Because they're delivering information about a public health crisis. 

I think that we are starting to see the folks really coming out about their civil liberties and their rights to not be told what to do by government. 

A number of the posts that I've seen or the information that I've received from my members, the folks that are making the claims are actually attributing it to government overreach and that the public health directors don't have the legal authority or aren't elected and don't have the power to make these decisions. 

But the case is actually the opposite. 

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You've said that some politicians are, in some ways, pitting public health against freedom. 

Yes, I would say that is exactly how I would characterize this. 

Unfortunately, when it comes down to making decisions, public health directors are advisers in these roles that they serve and they are basing their information and their advice on evidence and science, and what we know about a very new disease. Sometimes that is not what people want to hear. 

Then we have to take into account that the elected officials have a role in decision-making, and occasionally those two collide because the public health directors are really interested in preserving the health of the communities that they serve, and elected officials are trying to maintain the economy and other factors within their communities. 

Demonstrations critical of COVID-19 related stay-at-home orders and restrictions have taken place across the United States. (Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters)

What could this mean if these threats continue? I'm assuming if you get threatened enough, eventually you're going to leave your job. What could this mean in terms of the fight against COVID-19 in your community? 

We have already seen in the state of Colorado alone, six individuals leave their posts and one was actually terminated from their post, and we already are strapped. We have been an under-resourced system in this country for decades. 

The pool of candidates to fill these very top-level director positions is not deep. It's not as if we have a bunch of people waiting to be hired to do these jobs. 

And I think we will see it more difficult to fill these vacancies because who would want to take a position in which they are going into public service to help their communities, but actually become targets of some very nasty and threatening types of information.

So I think we will continue to see the system struggle and [be] challenged to respond to COVID. We know that this is a long-term response. We are ramping up for a 24 to 30 month response, and that in and of itself is tiring. 

To have folks not in these very top positions, at the heads of their departments, helping hold those teams together will put more strain on an already strained to a breaking point system.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from the Associated Press. Produced by Ines Colabrese.

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