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Embattled Public Health Workers Leaving At 'Steady And Alarming' Rate

Public health officials around the country have been threatened and harassed for saying the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a mask and not gather in large groups.
Daniel Slim
AFP via Getty Images
Public health officials around the country have been threatened and harassed for saying the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a mask and not gather in large groups.

Lauri Jones has been working in public health in Washington state's Okanogan County for 17 years. After repeated recent threats to her safety, she recently got a new security system for her home.

"I still find myself sometimes looking over my shoulder," Jones says. "Especially if I walk out of the building and it's getting obviously dark earlier."

She's not leaving her post as the county's community health director. But her colleague Dr. John McCarthy is leaving in December. He says the workload has become too heavy.

"I know that my colleague [Lauri Jones] was threatened multiple times, and in social media, and in very inappropriate ways," McCarthy says. "We don't have to be happy that there's a pandemic going on, but to blame individuals is not going to be helpful."

Earlier this year, anti-mask demonstrators protested outside the home of Spokane, Wash. health officer Dr. Bob Lutz. He was recently fired by the county board of health, sparking a backlash and calls for the state health board to investigate. Lutz didn't respond to multiple interview requests for this story. In the Benton and Franklin County region in Washington, a petition is circulating to remove a health official as well.

In Yakima County, the health director recently resigned. And in Whitman County, home to Washington State University in Pullman, the health director just departed for a job overseas. At the state level, Washington Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy announced she will resign her position as well.

'Steady and alarming'

Lori Freeman calls the loss of top public health officers across the country "steady and alarming." Freeman heads the National Association of County and City Health Officials. More than 70 have been fired, resigned or plan to leave their posts since the pandemic began in the U.S. In fact, so many are leaving, Freeman is keeping a spreadsheet.

"Some of our public health officials have been physically threatened, politically scapegoated," Freeman says. " Their roles have been diminished, their authorities have been in some cases taken away."

This is happening while Freeman was already anticipating an exodus due to Baby Boomer retirements in the next few years. That was before the pandemic. Freeman says that since February, the outsized workload has made things worse. And Freeman says fresh energy is needed on the public health front.

"We have to get through the vaccination stage where we are actively deploying and vaccinating the country," Freeman says.

Little federal help

More staff, more supplies and more organization nationally could help with the pandemic, health workers say.

Freeman says the outsized workload hasn't let up since February. And for years before COVID-19 , health officials say they'd been underfunded, with staff cut to the minimum.

It's been months since Congress passed a COVID-19 relief act, called the CARES Act. It was signed into law in March.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington says the U.S. House of Representatives tried to fund more relief in May. But, Murray says, "[Senate] Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not bring it up."

Murray says she's deeply concerned about the attrition of top doctors, nurses and public health officials across the country. She says President Donald Trump has politicized the pandemic.

"He's refused to listen to the science," she says. "He's refused to listen to the expertise of public health officials who are on the ground making decisions about how to address the virus and keep their communities safe. It's an enormous emotional toll when they are not believed for the profession that they are trained in."

Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici calls it is "beyond frustrating."

She point out that the HEROES Act that the U.S. House has passed is just waiting for the Senate to take action. The legislation would provide more than one trillion dollars of aid to state, local governments and tribes to respond to the pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell has been pushing a smaller, more targeted relief bill that costs roughly $500 billion and does not include money for state and local governments.

COVID-19 doesn't know boundaries: cities, farms, Democrats and Republicans, Bonamici says. And she points out that with COVID-19 case rates moving upward, at particular risk are smaller communities with limited health care systems.

"Healthcare workers in those communities ... are seeing people they know [get sick]," Bonamici says. "If we don't turn this around, they are going to go to the hospital and the hospital is going to be full."

Unrelenting attacks

Karen Koenemann has just a few days left at her post on Colorado's Western Slope. She's the public health director for Pitkin County, and she didn't really know she was burned out until the nasty emails started coming. Early in the pandemic, a press release went out from her office with a quote from her.

"It was something like, 'I really hope we don't see an increase in cases in our community,' or something like that," Koenemann says.

Despite the fairly mundane quote, she received a stinging email. A community member accused her of not understanding the pandemic.

"[They] said 'You are a derelict of duty by even saying that, you should be fired,'" she recalls.

The public health director of Las Animas and Huerfano counties in Colorado was the target of aggressive radio ads paid for by a group named "Colorado Counties for Freedom." The ads demands her authority to be stripped. The public health director's car was also vandalized.

Koenemann, on Colorado's Western Slope, says she's tired of the attacks and tired of getting little help from community leaders. It came to a head during a meeting with elected officials.

"I felt alone, and so I just started to cry in the meeting," she says. "That was sort of how [my burnout] came out. You know, I would be crying in a meeting with the sheriff and the county manager."

Konenemann has now resigned her position as public health director. She plans to move to Alaska.

Copyright 2020 Northwest News Network

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.