County Health Director Faces Bullying, Threats from COVID-19 Deniers

Amber Elliott is coming to terms with the harsh realities of her job. She recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post describing her experience working as a county health director in St. Francois County, Missouri. She says she rarely goes out in public anymore after being demonized by her neighbors. Trying to convince other people to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously has taken a toll on her career and personal life.

Now, she’s venting her frustration in hopes that it might change a few minds before it’s too late.

Personal Attacks from the Community

As a leading advocate for public health, Elliott has been working around the clock for months trying to save as many lives from the virus as possible. She even recounts working 90 days in a row at one point over the last few months, but many people in the community were more than skeptical of what was going on around them.

“We don’t have anyone to handle HR, public information, or IT, so that’s all been me.”

The hospital in her county is already at capacity. “We only have about 70,000 people in St. Francois County, but we’ve had more than 900 new cases in the last few weeks. Our positivity rate is 25 percent and rising,” she added online.

As the virus spread without limits, Elliott pleaded with her neighbors and patients to wear masks, practice social distancing, and avoid large gatherings, but they responded with hateful messages and even threats of violence.

She’ll often open her phone or computer to see these kinds of messages on Facebook or via email, such as:

“Oh, she’s blowing it out of proportion.” “She’s a communist.” “She’s a bitch.” “She’s pushing her agenda.” “We’re tracking your movements.” “Don’t do something you’ll regret.” “We’ll protest at your house.”

When it comes to contact tracing, she says most of the time she hopes she doesn’t get cussed at while on the phone. Other people will blatantly lie to her face about where they’ve been.

“Probably half of the people we call are skeptical or combative. They refuse to talk. They deny their own positive test results. They hang up. They say they’re going to hire a lawyer. They give you fake people they’ve spent time with and fake numbers. They lie and tell you they’re quarantining alone at home, but then in the background you can hear the beeping of a scanner at Walmart.”

She also says she’s seen strange cars drive by her house several times in a row and strangers photographing her children at the local park.

“How insane is that? I know it’s my job to be out front talking about the importance of public health — educating people, keeping them safe. Now it kind of scares me.”

What Makes COVID-19 Different from Other Pandemics?

Elliott says she’s not political in nature. All she wants to do is save as many lives as possible, but she’s confused as to why that’s considered so controversial.

“We do the same thing for measles, mumps, and tick-borne diseases, and I’d say 99 percent of the time before covid, people were receptive. They wanted to stop an outbreak, but now it’s all politicized.”

All this combativeness only makes it more difficult for Elliott to do her job. At this point, she says she’s running out of options. As she writes online, “What else can we try? But in the end, it doesn’t matter how much you do. Nothing will work, because it almost seems like the patient is resisting your help.”

When Elliott and her colleagues voiced their support for a local mask mandate, their campaign ended up having the opposite effect. Shortly after the mandate went into effect, public support for wearing a mask in public fell by 6%.

At the end of the day, Elliott says she doesn’t even recognize her hometown.

“We like to believe we take good care of each other here. This is rural Missouri. We pride ourselves on being a down-home community that sticks together, and now this is how we treat each other? This is who we are?”

What About Her Safety?

While she worries for her safety, Elliott says the local police department has been a tremendous help as she adapts to her new normal. That meant installing a new security system in her home, having an extra pair of eyes on her kids at their elementary school, and taking all her personal photos and information off Facebook and social media.

She limits her time in public for safety reasons, but the one thing she still enjoys is watching her young son play baseball. But things got tense when a man showed up at a game and started taking pictures of Elliott and her young daughter.

That was one of the straws that finally broke the camel’s back.

Elliott says she just handed in her letter of resignation, but she’s not leaving the nursing industry just yet. In fact, she’s already accepted another assignment.

She ends the piece with a message of exhaustion. “I’m not abandoning the community. I’m going to keep fighting this pandemic, but I don’t want that target on my back. I’m ready to be anonymous.”

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