A colleague texted Dr. Erica Pan, the health officer for Alameda County, a photo of the yard sign. It showed a photo of her with the words “Financially destroyed families and businesses” and “#A–holeMD.”
“I’m getting antagonism in all sorts of ways,” said Dr. Pan, who has been trolled on social media, received threats to come to her house and been vilified on websites that rate doctors. “These things distract from the important public health work I need to do to protect the community; that’s my job. Where I get upset is if it tries to invade my personal and family life. I really don’t want my family to be dragged into this.”
She isn’t alone. Across California and the country, public health officers have become targets of protests, intimidation and even death threats from people who resent mandates to slow the spread of the coronavirus by sheltering in place, closing businesses and wearing masks.
Health officers, who are physicians appointed by elected boards of supervisors, ordinarily are low-profile civil servants. But during the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, by law they are the ultimate authorities behind the sweeping orders that have transformed everyday life for millions of people.
While polls show most Californians support the pandemic prevention measures, a vocal minority expresses opposition by harassing health officers.
In the Bay Area, protesters have mobilized outside the homes of health officers in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties carrying signs such as “God hates liars.” Threats against Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County health officer, are so serious that she now has security protection. Dr. Chris Farnitano, the Contra Costa County health officer, said on a podcast that security had been stepped up around his office and home.
“Health officers and local health directors are working 80 hours a week to fight a virus,” said Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California. “At the same time, they’re subject to some really vicious attacks, getting threatened by members of the public.”
Nationwide, more than two dozen public health officers have stepped down in recent weeks, although some had planned retirements. In California eight local health officials and two state officials have resigned since the pandemic started, DeBurgh said.
On Tuesday, Dr. Pan became the ninth resignation, saying she will leave Alameda County to become state epidemiologist and deputy director overseeing the Center for Infectious Dieseases. The change is unrelated to the harassment, she said. “If anything, this will be similar in that I’ll be enforcing statewide guidances (to combat the coronavirus) so will be a public face and probably get more” targeting, she said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the badgering issue in a press briefing last Wednesday.
“Some of the health directors (are) getting attacked, getting death threats, they’re being demeaned and demoralized,” he said. “I just want to apologize to all those health directors … because all they want to do is keep you healthy and safe using data, using science. It’s not a political issue. This is not some ideological issue.”
But many protesters see the pandemic through the lens of politics and ideology.
“People who are ideologically against vaccines are expanding into this related issue and have found common allies with COVID denialists, COVID conspiracy theorists, right-wing fringe groups concerned about government overreach,”said Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy and sociology at UC Riverside, who studies the anti-vaccination movement, which has led organizing of protests over pandemic measures. “They see this as the government overstepping its bounds.”
Some people behind the protests targeting health officers said they feel justified for that very reason, pointing to examples such as contact tracing, an initiative to interview newly infected people about others who may have been exposed to the virus.
“Isn’t it also intimidating that they’re talking about a contact-tracing army that’s going to come to our homes?” said Stefanie Fetzer, an Orange County homemaker and co-founder of Freedom Angels Foundation, an anti-vaccine group that is organizing demonstrations over coronavirus measures. “I feel threatened that they want to put me in a database and track my family’s comings and goings because of coronavirus. That, to me, is very un-American.”
Public health officers said that contact tracing is voluntary — people can refuse to give information without consequences — and noted that it generally happens by telephone.
“Contact tracing is a vital public health protection,” DeBurgh said. “Opposing contact tracing is like telling the fire department you have the right to let your house burn down regardless of the risk to your neighbors.”
Fetzer also said mask requirements are onerous. Two of her children have sensory processing issues and panic disorders that are exacerbated by wearing face masks, she said.
Fetzer defended Freedom Angels’ protests. “Our taking it to the county public health officers’ homes has been very peaceful with chalk drawing and children there,” she said. “Calling it intimidation is almost a tactic against us.”
Facebook removed three videos the group posted of its protests outside health officers’ homes, including that in Contra Costa County.
“While we believe in protecting people’s ability to express their views and organize peaceful protests on our platform, we have determined that these videos violate our policies so we have taken them down,” Facebook said in a statement. The issue was that the content revealed personally identifiable information, the company added.
Videos still on the group’s Facebook streams showed the protesters staying in the public right of way and interacting peacefully with police officers, but their commentaries included strident statements such as, “We will be relentless, we won’t stop, we will show up at every single house.” In Santa Clara, one protester said the presence of security guards shows “the hypocrisy just reeks” and is “really really sick.”
“Hey public health officers you’re in our cross hairs,” the group wrote on its Facebook page. “We need to start making them very uncomfortable,” one member said in a video, speaking of public health officers as well as city council members and county supervisors.
Some experts say the hostility toward health officers can be traced to the White House.
“It’s very unfortunate that President Trump has set the tone of not supporting science and of making it OK to just lash out at other folks,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, San Francisco health officer.
Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco public health director, agreed. “The response at the highest office in the land (is to ignore) data, science and facts,” he said. “That feeds into the local dynamics we’re seeing across the country.”
In the Bay Area, some incendiary language toward health officers has come from Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Incensed over orders to keep his Fremont manufacturing plant closed, Musk called Dr. Pan “unelected & ignorant” on Twitter and said she was acting “contrary to the Governor, the President, our Constitutional freedoms & just plain common sense!” That inspired his fan base to further social media attacks on Dr. Pan, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with more than two decades of medical experience.
Tesla is filing a lawsuit against Alameda County immediately. The unelected & ignorant “Interim Health Officer” of Alameda is acting contrary to the Governor, the President, our Constitutional freedoms & just plain common sense!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 9, 2020
All California county health officers are unelected by design to “to insulate them from politics,” DeBurgh said. “You want them to be a physician, not a politician who ran for office.”
Unlike many of their colleagues, Aragón and Colfax have not been targeted. While they may get emails from people who aren’t happy, those have not crossed the line into abuse.
“It’s fortunate that in San Francisco there’s been great public support for the efforts put forward,” Colfax said. Still, “the fact that we’re now in an age when public health officers are being harassed and attacked for doing what’s right for public health is of grave concern and reflects the very challenging dynamics we’re working in right now.”
Stephen Shortell, dean emeritus of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, worries about whether the attacks could deter doctors from taking these critical roles and could change the nature of the jobs.
“There’s now an expanded leadership role, need for emotional resilience, ability to communicate, be more in the public eye,” Shortell said.
Widespread anger from the devastating economic impact wrought by the shutdowns has left people searching for scapegoats.
“That’s what has led to so many people breaking down or snapping from stress, and lashing out at the most visible target, the public health officers,” Shortell said. “Certain members of the public see them as the ones restricting their freedom to reopen their businesses or go about what they want to do.”
In Alameda County, Dr. Pan said she understands and empathizes with how hard it’s been for everybody to cope with the pandemic.
“I support people’s freedom to protest (such as) coming to my office or a board meeting,” she said. “There are plenty of respectful letters, emails and advocacy to elected officials.”
Her message to protesters: “Alameda County, the whole county, is my patient and I’m trying to make the best decisions I can for a large diverse (population) with a lot of competing issues and priorities. We’re open to ongoing input and feedback but want it to be in a constructive way.”