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Healthcare

Local public health officials in Michigan face burnout and threats of violence

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tensions are still running high as the U.S. trudges through its second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, local public health officials are the ones bearing the brunt of that tension. As Sarah Lehr reports from member station WKAR, health officers in Michigan are dealing with burnout and fielding threats of violence.

SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail is used to 18-hour days as she monitors mid-Michigan case counts, runs vaccine clinics and issues health orders. But even when she's exhausted, rest doesn't come easily.

LINDA VAIL: I can't sleep anymore without taking something to help the anxiety and depression that overrides me every single day. And I get up in the morning and get past it, but then I go to sleep at night, and it takes over, and it becomes a cloud of darkness.

LEHR: Vail worries about her physical safety. She recently installed a home security system and says she's received threatening mail at her house. She gets vulgar emails from people angry over mask orders and quarantine rules.

LORI FREEMAN: It is a nationwide problem - the threats, the intimidation.

LEHR: That's Lori Freeman, who leads the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 300 public health leaders in the U.S. have resigned, retired or been fired. That's according to a database from Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press. Freeman attributes the exodus to a combination of underfunding and the politicization of public health.

In the Grand Rapids area, a health officer emailed county commissioners in August pleading for support after he says an angry driver tried to run him off the highway twice. He described the incident as one in a chain of threats after he ordered masks inside pre-kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms.

Michigan's governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has declined to back a statewide school mask order this fall. She says those decisions are best made on the local level, and she's encouraging local health departments and school boards to adopt their own mandates. But the Michigan Association for Local Public Health says statewide requirements are necessary. The advocacy group says a patchwork system has left local officials vulnerable to threats and intimidation.

During one public meeting in lower Michigan this September, a resident named Kati Moss likened a school mask order to child abuse as she confronted a local health officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATI MOSS: Maybe we should go get muzzles and padlocks and force them on your children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yup.

MOSS: Maybe you need to be put in a gas chamber.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yes.

LEHR: That meeting reached a boiling point when a man accused the health officer of violating the Constitution and said he was placing her under citizen's arrest. No one arrested the health official, and the Board of Health adjourned the meeting after a few minutes of confusion. The health officer ended up reversing her school-related orders a week later, citing concerns about language in the state budget that restricts local departments from requiring masks for children. The governor and other Democrats say that provision is unenforceable.

The Van Buren/Cass Health District has not issued local mask or quarantine rules, but Danielle Persky, who leads the West Michigan department, says the possibility of such orders is provoking confrontations.

DANIELLE PERSKY: We have logo apparel that we sometimes wear. And myself and our team, we don't like to wear it outside of the office.

LEHR: Persky says the department has adjusted security after someone threatened to blow up their building, and staff are leaving the office in pairs.

PERSKY: We have experienced some drive-by heckling.

LEHR: Near Flint, Medical Health Officer Dr. Pamela Hackert sometimes feels leery of going out in public. A criminal case is pending against a woman charged with making death threats against Hackert and her deputy. Hackert says she's been coping with the stress of her job with counseling and by reading kind emails from residents. Still, there's a sense of whiplash.

PAMELA HACKERT: I don't know how we have a society gone from having public health workers are heroes to public health workers are the villains.

LEHR: Hackert says she feels a sense of duty, but wonders if she'll reach a breaking point. She's sticking around for now.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Lehr in Lansing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "EXPLORE, BE CURIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.