On Thursday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced that Amy Acton, the director of the Ohio Department of Health, was stepping down.
“It is difficult for me to put in words and express how thankful I am for Dr. Acton,” DeWine said at a news conference announcing her resignation, praising her “extraordinary bedside manner” and ability to communicate clearly. “She has always put the health and safety of Ohioans first and foremost … I will always believe and know that many lives were saved because of her wise advice.”
Under Acton’s guidance, DeWine shut down Ohio early on in the pandemic, decisively closing schools and restaurants while halting public gatherings. His swift action won him a statewide approval rating of 86 percent.
Yet, as the face of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, Acton endured public criticism and harassment — including anti-Semitism — as she worked on the state’s coronavirus response. On May 2, protesters walked her neighborhood, guns in hand. One woman held a sign that said, “Dr. Amy Over-re-Acton. Hairstyists [sic], are essential.”
At some point, Acton was provided with a security detail, Melanie Amato, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Health wrote in an email, but did not specify when.
Acton will continue to work for the state as DeWine’s chief health adviser, and was unavailable to comment for this story.
It’s not just Acton. In Southern California, Orange County’s chief health officer, Nichole Quick, resigned on June 8 after being similarly harassed and criticized for, among other virus-fighting measures, a countywide mask order. At a public hearing in late May, a resident mentioned their right to bear arms. One of the attendees who phoned in recited Quick’s home address and identified her boyfriend.
Public health officials, used to largely serving behind the scenes, have been cast into high-profile, polarizing positions during the pandemic, frequently next to the podium of leaders from the president to county executives. With that new public exposure, they’ve been subject to ill will, criticisms and personal attacks amid never-ending workweeks and the moral burden of a municipality’s death count weighing on every decision. As a result, these officials are leaving their posts, even as the biggest public health crisis of the modern era rages on.
While leaders of public health official organizations say the harassment seems evenly distributed between women and men, attacks on women are more personal and tend to be cruder and sexualized.
The profession is pretty evenly split between genders, as is the harassment, said Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Since April, she says about 22 officials have vacated their positions nationally. While she doesn’t think that women have been leaving their positions in greater numbers, she does note that women have fielded different kinds of attack.
“There have been uglier circumstances around the women that I just couldn’t seem to identify with any of the men,” Tremmel Freeman said.
Emily Brown, the former director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department in rural Colorado, took a more science-based approach to reopening than was popular with local leaders.
Brown, 37, told The Lily she doesn’t know what exactly ultimately led to her recent termination.
“All the commissioners told me was ‘This just isn’t working out,’” Brown wrote in an email. “I don’t know that I have any proof that my situation was related to being a woman or being somewhat younger for a director position, but I have never felt my decisions questioned more than during this last three months and I definitely felt it sometimes was related to how I communicated as a woman.”
That’s a common feeling and concern for women across industries.
“We know from decades of organizational and gender studies research that women and men’s performance is assessed along different metrics, and many of these differences are tied to gender stereotypes. Women are more likely to be called out for being assertive in the workplace, and they are more likely to be judged based on physical traits and personality than their male peers,” Jessica Vitak, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Communities and Information at the University of Maryland. “We’re likely seeing these biases play out as women health care officials are being thrust into more visible positions during the pandemic.”
Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, noted that in California, seven health officials had resigned since the end of April: two women and five men. (In the interim, both of the women were replaced by men.) The state has a total of 60 public health officials — 22 women and 38 men.
Quick, the Orange County official, was one of the highest profile public health officials in the state as anti-mask protests continued. Last week, the county reversed course and rescinded the order requiring masks to be worn in public.
Like Acton, by the time Quick resigned, she was also being provided with a security detail after she received a death threat, according to the Los Angeles Times. Quick did not respond to a request for comment.
Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the University of California at San Francisco’s epidemiology and biostatistics department, has spoken about public health in the media for years, and yet was shocked at the harassment she received after being quoted in a Los Angeles Times article about the efficacy of wearing masks.
“I’m an academic. I’m not a government official so no one can make me resign,” Bibbins-Domingo said. But when she opened her inbox after the story was published, she was “shocked.” When she showed her husband the emails, he urged her to report them.
Bibbins-Domingo, who is black, said she received crude sexual and racist messages in a volume that she suspects was coordinated. “It was absolutely gendered and targeted to who I am specifically.”
“I didn’t quite anticipate the tenor — very specific language — in response to an academic saying masks are important,” she said. “I can only imagine, if you’re a government official trying to make policy in an environment where the feelings run so strong and there is the additional incentive to use this language to get people to resign.”
Despite the challenges, Tremmel Freeman says the need for the civic-minded to go into a career in public health could not be greater.
“Women should not be disheartened because we still need women — and men — in this field. We need an experienced workforce for this job. This is a really hard job but it’s one of the most noble professions that we have in health.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo is employed by the University of San Francisco. She works at the University of California at San Francisco. We regret the error.