Multiple California health officials have left their jobs amid anger, threats and personal attacks in response to health orders through the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week Orange County health director Dr. Nichole Quick unexpectedly resigned after receiving personal threats in a public meeting, joining a wave of medical officials leaving their posts under unprecedented pressure and criticism.
Quick, who had been working 80-hour weeks through the crisis, was met with a banner depicting her as a Nazi in a public meeting, and protests were held outside her home, reported the Associated Press. She had recently issued an order that included the requirement that residents wear masks to try to limit the spread of the virus as the county began reopening more businesses. A day later, the Orange County sheriff said he wouldn’t enforce the ruling.
Quick became the seventh senior health official to resign in California since the pandemic began. Some officials have been given security details and sheriff’s escorts in response to the threats in counties across the state.
The following California health officers have left their posts since the pandemic began: Nevada County Public Health Officer Dr. Ken Cutler, San Benito County Interim Public Health Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, Yolo County Public Health Officer Dr. Ron Chapman, Butte County Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Miller, Orange County Public Health Director David Souleles and San Bernardino County Public Health Director Trudy Raymundo.
Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, told the AP, “We certainly have had angry comments at meetings before, especially around vaccines, but this level of threat, of having to have a sheriff’s escort, we haven’t seen it before.”
Health officials’ jobs, during the largest pandemic in modern history, have been made even tougher by the politicization of mask wearing and stay-at-home mandates as they try to curtail the number of COVID-19 deaths across the country.
When the President of the United States refuses to wear a mask, many civilians feel emboldened to to the same, and their frustration and anger at a perceived restriction of human rights is often directed at the public-facing health officials. President Donald Trump has almost exclusively appeared in public without a mask since the pandemic began, and told press on a tour of a Ford plant in Michigan in May, “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
As the country approaches 120,000 deaths from the virus, many Americans still believe the pandemic is a hoax, with discredited theories ranging from a Democratic hit job to part of a wider conspiracy to deploy 5G network towers and microchip civilians. “You will lose all rights to privacy, bank and personal info. Don’t take the vaccine!!” read a recent Facebook post with over 5,000 shares.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, professor at the UCLA school of public health, told Cal Matters, “None of us has the unfettered right to do what we want. People are saying, ‘Our president’s not doing this, why do I have to?’ That’s one of the roots of this problem — the radicalization of views on individual rights.”
Attacks on social media against health officials have become ugly. A tweet accompanying a doctored photo of Los Angeles county health officer Dr. Barbara Ferrer that made her appear sick, called her “the most unhealthy looking person I’ve ever seen” and was retweeted nearly 30,000 times.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that a recent public meeting about restaurants reopening in the city was shut down by supervisors when a pizzeria owner started walking toward the county’s health officer.
A Northern California health officer who asked to remain anonymous told Cal Matters this week that he had seen death threats emailed to officials. “The health officers are kind of in this position where everything that everyone is angry about is the health officer’s fault,” he said. “It makes you feel that there is nowhere that’s safe.”
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Andrew Chamings is a digital editor at SFGATE. Email: Andrew.Chamings@sfgate.com | Twitter: @AndrewChamings