Until last week, Amber Elliott had been the public health director for St. Francois County in Missouri, a rural community a little more than an hour south of St. Louis.
She started the job just two months before the outbreak of the coronavirus, so her tenure was bound to be fraught. But Elliott told The Washington Post that what finally made her hand in her resignation was the frightening level of harassment and abuse she was taking from members of the public about mask mandates, contact tracing, and other efforts she, and other officials like her, have been undertaking to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Elliott said that cars being driven by strangers traveled back and forth past her house. Other people took photos of her children. She was called a communist and a bitch on social media, with some constituents suggesting she had an “agenda.”
“OK, fine,” Elliott told the Post. “I do have an agenda. I want disease transmission to go down. I want to keep the county safe. I want fewer people to die. Why is that controversial?”
Unfortunately, Elliott is far from the only public health official who has been abused and harassed since the beginning of the pandemic, and she is not the first one to step down because of it. Dr. Amy Acton, who had been Ohio’s state health director, quit in June after armed protesters showed up outside her house and Republican lawmakers questioned her authority. Dr. Rachel Levine, who leads the Pennsylvania Department of Health, has been a lightning rod for commonwealth residents angry about canceled proms or restaurants only being able to operate at 50% capacity.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been attacked by President Trump for speaking frankly about the coronavirus. Trump has also called White House scientific advisers “idiots.” Fauci now has to travel with a security detail.
In August, the Kaiser Health News Service and the Associated Press reported that at least 49 state and local public health officials had left their posts since the start of the pandemic, either resigning like Elliott and Acton, or they were fired or opted to retire. Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the AP, “The overall tone toward public health is so hostile that it has kind of emboldened people to make these attacks.”
What the heck is going on?
The coronavirus pandemic has, unfortunately, spawned a corresponding epidemic of petulance and irrationality. America has fostered a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, and distrust of science seems to go hand-in-hand with a wide-ranging mistrust and disparagement of expertise. Some people are all too ready to believe outlandish conspiracy theories that sprout online. Misogyny could also help explain some of the fury directed at female health officials.
To be sure, Americans value ideals of freedom and liberty, but freedom and liberty can very easily slide into recklessness when people thumb their noses at public health directives in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed more than 250,000 people in the United States and more than 1 million worldwide.
In the Post, Elliott asked, “This is how we treat each other? This is who we are?”