As coronavirus continues to hit Ohio, public health officials take the heat

By: - June 15, 2020 12:50 am

Dr. Amy Acton addresses reporters at a news conference in 2020. Capital Journal photo by Jake Zuckerman.

For the second time during the pandemic, Delaware General Health District imposed a lockdown and called the police April 23.

Commissioner Sheila Hiddleson, a nurse who has led health departments for 23 years, said one person said “I’m going to kill you” to one of her health department employees.

“The other time, the person said, ‘I’m going to come down there and get you, I know where your building is located.’ Something to that effect,” she said.

The incidents crystalize a trend playing out nationally and in Ohio. As public health authorities impose sweeping lockdowns, temporarily closing some businesses and effectively shuttering others for good, epidemiologists have found themselves to be the targets.

The lockdowns, based on evidence available at the time, were imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Critics decried them as heavy-handed, a blunt force weapon in lieu of a scalpel approach to social distancing. 

“I think tensions are running high for a lot of people, and this has really affected our communities in ways that nobody has imagined,” Hiddleson said.

In Ohio, more than 40,000 people have contracted COVID-19 since January, about 2,500 of whom have died. Meanwhile, unemployment claims have skyrocketed due to some combination of the new coronavirus and shutdowns it inspired.

In Bexley, a wealthy suburb of Columbus, protesters swarmed the home of then-Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton on three occasions. Some openly carried weapons. She had already been assigned a protective detail for threats.

As Cleveland Jewish News reported, one protester wielded a sign loaded with anti-Semitic and misogynist references.

“She’s been subject to, at the very least inappropriate dehumanizing verbal attacks, and at the worst, flat-out anti-Semitic allegations,” said Jackie Congedo, director of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati’s Jewish community relations council, the outlet reported.

A protester at a rally seeking to end the lockdowns in Columbus held another anti-Semitic sign. He was later charged with possessing a firearm while intoxicated and aggravating and menacing behavior when he allegedly entered a Stow convenience store and asked where the Jews were because he wanted to kill them.

On Thursday, Acton announced her resignation as department director. Similarly, the Columbus Dispatch reports Dr. Mark Hurst, Acton’s medical director, filed for retirement May 3.

While public health professionals around the state have expressed their disappointment with Acton’s departure, lawmakers who whipped up much of the animus against her celebrated her ouster.

Some of those same lawmakers have led the charge to strip Acton’s former position of its ability to issue lasting public health orders, and others to stymie the decades-old public health practice of contact tracing.

It’s not just Acton. Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press report at least 27 state and local health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April across 13 states.

For instance, the Orange County, California, chief health officer resigned, the outlets reported, after people at a public hearing referenced a need to arm themselves while another read aloud the home address of the health officer and her boyfriend. The threats came in response to a health order requiring the use of masks in public spaces, as the CDC recommends.  

The resignations come months into a pandemic that has infected more than 2 million Americans, killing about 115,000 of them, according to Johns Hopkins University data accessed Friday.

Hiddleson said her department has worked with about 1,200 people who were either put into quarantine or isolation. Of them, only six yielded any struggles.

Tensions are high, the threat is invisible to the naked eye, and Hiddleson figures people just need to get their anger out on something. Public health, which usually operates in the background, seems to have become the scapegoat.

“I think when people are frustrated, you try to take it out on the person that’s closest to the situation,” she said. 

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Jake Zuckerman
Jake Zuckerman

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.