The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) sent a letter today to U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland highlighting the violence, threats, and harassment faced by public health department leaders and staff in the course of fulfilling their duties responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and requesting that the Department of Justice include the protection of public health department officials and staff in its directive to address the increased risk in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school-related personnel.
The full letter can be found here.
“We strongly request that you include the protection of public health department officials and staff in your directive to federal authorities to meet with local, state, Tribal, and territorial law enforcement to address the increased risk in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school-related personnel.
While the pandemic has brought greater appreciation by many to the importance of public health and the people who work in the field, too many health department leaders and their staff have experienced threats to their jobs, their safety, and their family members.
These threats have taken a toll: at least 300 public health department leaders have left their posts since the pandemic began, impacting 20% of Americans. In many cases, they have been verbally abused and physically threatened. Their personal information has been shared, their families targeted, and their offices attacked. They have been politically scapegoated by some elected officials and either fired or forced to leave their positions for standing up for the health of their communities.
While threats to lower-level employees are harder to track, a recent study of the public health workforce by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this past spring found that about 26% of respondents experienced stigma or discrimination because of work, 24% felt bullied, threatened, or harassed because of work, and 12% received job-related threats because of work. Health department staff experiencing these types of threats and harassment were nearly twice as likely as their peers to have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
These threats and acts of violence against government workers in their professional capacity have profound impacts on these individuals and their families. Some have had to move to driving unmarked cars or adding at-home security cameras, others have had to rely on police escorts and round-the-clock security, while others changed their children’s behavior worried about if they will be targeted instead. While these incidents have occurred over the course of the pandemic, they have been particularly acute around school-related public health directives.
The violence and threats faced by health department staff also directly impact care for their communities. Community meetings and hearings have been postponed or cancelled for safety reasons, delaying needed public health action and further fueling the anti-public health efforts of these groups. Many leaders have stopped attending meetings or events in person due to the security threat. But the impact goes beyond just the COVID-19 response. These health official departures come at a time when they are hardest to backfill, leaving leadership gaps in communities across the country.
While law enforcement has stepped up to protect health department staff in some instances, far too often very little is done to stop or prosecute these actions. They need help. Therefore, we respectfully request that you include the protection of public health department leaders and staff in your October 4, 2021, directive ‘to improve threat reporting, assessment and response by law enforcement.’”