Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Public-health workers, once an 'invisible army,' have become 'a public punching bag' in a politicized pandemic

Karen Koenemann quit as public health director for Pitkin County, Colo. (seat: Aspen) after realizing she was in “Groundhog Day,” she said. “I have been working eight months, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m really burnt out, really burnt out. ... I think of the pandemic as the ultra-marathon that we were required to do at a sprint’s pace. And we walked into that ultra-marathon emaciated, we didn’t train well for it, we didn’t have the strength going in. ... Every day I do the best I can and I am giving so much, so much of myself to this job and this community, and all I get is criticism and it just was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Life is too short.”  (Photo for Kaiser Health News by Kelsey Brunner)

Local and state public-health officials and workers are "at the center of a political storm as they combat the worst pandemic in a century," Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press report.

"Amid a fractured federal response, the usually invisible army of workers charged with preventing the spread of infectious diseases has become a public punching bag. Their expertise on how to fight the coronavirus is often disregarded," write Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Hannah Recht and Lauren Weber of KHN and Michelle R. Smith of AP.

Kaiser Health News map; to enlarge, click on it.
"Some have become the target of far-right activists, conservative groups and anti-vaccination extremists, who have coalesced around common goals — fighting mask orders, quarantines and contact tracing with protests, threats and personal attacks. The backlash has moved beyond the angry fringe. In the courts, public health powers are being undermined. Lawmakers in at least 24 states have crafted legislation to weaken public health powers, which could make it more difficult for communities to respond to other health emergencies in the future."

“What we’ve taken for granted for 100 years in public health is now very much in doubt,” Lawrence Gostin, a public-health law expert at Georgetown University, told one of the reporters.

It's too much for some in public health. "At least 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states have resigned, retired or been fired since April 1," according to the reporters' ongoing investigation. "According to experts, this is the largest exodus of public health leaders in American history. An untold number of lower-level staffers has also left. . . . Many of the state and local officials left due to political blowback or pandemic pressure. Some departed to take higher-profile positions or due to health concerns. Others were fired for poor performance. Dozens retired."

“I’ve never seen or studied a pandemic that has been as politicized, as vitriolic and as challenged as this one, and I’ve studied a lot of epidemics,” Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, told one of the reporters. “All of that has been very demoralizing for the men and women who don’t make a great deal of money, don’t get a lot of fame, but work 24/7.”

"The politicization has put some local governments at odds with their own health officials," KHN and AP report, giving several examples. "In California, near Lake Tahoe, the Placer County Board of Supervisors voted to end a local health emergency and declared support for a widely discredited “herd immunity” strategy, which would let the virus spread. . . . The supervisors also endorsed a false conspiracy theory claiming many Covid-19 deaths are not actually from Covid-19. The meeting occurred just days after county Public Health Officer Dr. Aimee Sisson explained to the board the rigorous standards used for counting Covid-19 deaths. Sisson quit the next day."

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