Why Are So Many Public Health Officials Resigning?

It’s been nearly five months since the start of the coronavirus pandemic here in the U.S., and at least 24 top public health officials have already resigned from their posts, including those from California, Colorado, Texas, New York, and Montana.

This week brought perhaps the biggest departure when NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot resigned after reportedly butting heads with Mayor Bill de Blasio. After resigning, she said her skills weren’t being utilized on the job, so she decided to take her expertise elsewhere.

In an open letter, she writes, “I leave my post today with deep disappointment that during the most critical public health crisis in our lifetime, that the Health Department’s incomparable disease control expertise was not used to the degree it could have been.”

This is not an isolated incident, however. Dr. Barbot joins dozens of other infectious disease specialists that have stepped down in recent months. Find out what’s going on behind the scenes.

The Decision to Resign

The NYC Public Health Agency is one of the most esteemed in the country. Other localities look to the city for guidance and support, especially when faced with a global pandemic. For Dr. Barbot, such a high-profile position came with plenty of backlash.

The city of New York received a lot of credit for flattening the curve. It saw one of the biggest outbreaks during March and April when New Yorkers essentially went on lockdown for months. However, NYC now has one of the lowest transmission rates in the country.

Now Dr. Barbot is out. So, what happened?

Many who are familiar with the situation say this was a long time coming. Dr. Barbot got in a heated exchange with a NYPD officer back in March that led to calls for her dismissal. The officer was requesting half a million N95 surgical masks for his officers, but, at the time, nurses and hospitals were running dangerously low on this equipment, so Dr. Barbot couldn’t fulfill his request. Many interpreted the event as an attack on police officers, but Dr. Barbot has since apologized.

The incident pushed her into the national spotlight, for better or worse. Other reports suggest that Mayor de Blasio has a reputation for distrusting his own health department, especially when it conflicts with his own agenda.

Tensions escalated when the Mayor handed the city’s contact tracing program over to public hospitals, which were already overwhelmed, instead of entrusting it to the health department, which has a long history of tracing the spread of infectious disease. Infighting among top officials also led to the delay of city-wide closures that might’ve helped limit the spread of the virus.

Personal Attacks

Dr. Lori Drumm from Deer Lodge, Montana is another prime example. She worked part-time as one of the area’s top public health advisors, but that all changed after the town started discussing the possibility of hosting a rodeo.

Before the event, she was concerned that the rodeo, a popular attraction in the state, would lead to the spread of the coronavirus. She said it would have been hard to keep people separated and enforce the latest safety requirements, especially during such a rowdy event.

So, she cancelled it.

Several days later, a crowd of nearly 30 people showed up at a local hospital where Dr. Drumm works as a family physician. The protesters carried copies of the U.S. Constitution, defending their right to go to a rodeo. After getting harassed online, she eventually left her position as the top health advisor.

Other officials say they left when political leaders didn’t heed their warnings and advice. Some counties and towns refused to issue mandates for facial coverings when going out in public, even though health officials were pleading for these kinds of safety restrictions.

Others struggle with online harassment and even death threats. The top infectious disease official in the country, Dr. Anthony Fauci, stated that both he and his daughters have been harassed due to his warnings about the virus.

During a forum on Wednesday sponsored by Harvard University, Fauci stated, “I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that people who object to things that are pure public health principles are so set against it, and don’t like what you and I say, namely in the word of science, that they actually threaten you. I mean, that to me is just strange.”

The History of Backlash Against Health Professionals

During the late 1900s, officials in the U.S. began what’s known as the Sanitation Movement, which changed the way we conduct business in this country. Companies and individuals were forced to comply with new hygiene and health protocols to prevent the spread of disease and illness, leading to outrage across the country. Citizens and corporations alike hated the idea of being told what to do.

In 1894 in Milwaukee during a smallpox outbreak, mobs of angry citizens armed with clubs and knives reportedly attacked public health officials after refusing to take their children to local hospitals.

By the early 20th Century, these efforts were paying off as the rate of disease plummeted and life expectancy rates started to rise dramatically. With these new protocols in place, health experts started to recede into the background.

That’s not the case today. Public health officials are quickly gaining notoriety as they guide us through this crisis. 

After leaving her post, Dr. Lori Drumm said, “I’m a little fearful for our country if we don’t slow down, calm down, and just remember to love one another.” However, rampant distrust of the medical system is a part of our country’s history, whether we like it or not.

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