Friday, November 20, 2020

Rural Missouri county health director says she faces threats and ridicule for trying to slow coronavirus transmission

Amber Elliott (Washington
Post photo by Whitney Curtis)

Amber Elliott, the health director in rural St. Francois County, Missouri, faces threats and ridicule from locals for encouraging masks and social-distancing measures, she says in an "as told to" piece with Eli Saslow of The Washington Post: "I’ve had strange cars driving back and forth past my house. I get threatening messages from people saying they’re watching me. They followed my family to the park and took pictures of my kids. How insane is that? I know it’s my job to be out front talking about the importance of public health — educating people, keeping them safe. Now it kind of scares me."

Though she fears for her and her family's safety by telling the Post about the threats, Elliott, who only began the job in January and is now planning to leave it, said the public needs to know that it's happening to her and other health-care officials all over the country.

Elliott said she finds the backlash confusing because politics play no part in her actions to promote public health. "I don’t base our whole response to this pandemic on my own opinion," she says. "This job is nonpartisan. I’m not political in any way. I go off of facts and evidence-based science, and right now, all the data in Missouri is scary bad."

St. Francois County, Missouri
(Wikipedia map)
The local hospital is already at capacity and staffing is low, even as the positive-test rate is 25% and rising. Moreover, the state is ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic because it has the lowest funding in the country for public health, and the county doesn't have the resources to effectively fight the spread on the local level, she says: "We can’t keep up. It’s an uncontrolled spread. I have these moments when it feels like I’m a nurse at the bedside, and my patient is dying, and I’m trying every possible intervention to save them. More social distancing. More masks. More contact tracing. Warnings and more warnings. What else can we try? But in the end, it doesn’t matter how much you do. Nothing will work, because it almost seems like the patient is resisting your help."

Elliott said she gets emails and Facebook comments accusing her of blowing the pandemic out of proportion, saying she's a communist, a bitch, or someone who is pushing an agenda. "Okay, fine. I do have an agenda. I want disease transmission to go down. I want to keep this community safe. I want fewer people to die. Why is that controversial?" she said.

The county health board recently pushed for a mask mandate since only about 40% of locals were wearing masks. When it held a public meeting about it, medical providers spoke in support, but many locals (some armed) showed up unmasked, yelling at them and booing them. Six weeks after the board imposed a the mandate, mask-wearing had declined 6 percentage points; Elliott suspects many locals didn't like being told what to do: "We required it, and people became more likely to do the opposite. How do you even make sense of that? We like to believe we take good care of each other here. This is rural Missouri. We pride ourselves on being a down-home community that sticks together, and now this is how we treat each other? This is who we are?"

The story is part of the Post's "Voices from the Pandemic" series, an oral history of the coronavirus pandemic and those affected.

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