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County health director says woman tried to run him off the road after he backed mask mandate


An earlier photo at the top of this story was of a mask that is not approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The photo has been updated.

Two days after his department issued a mask mandate, a health official had a plea for his county’s board of commissioners: “I need help.”

“There is a sickness in America more far more insidious than COVID,” Adam London, director of Michigan’s Kent County Health Department, wrote in an Aug. 22 email. “You are more empowered to fight this disease than I am.”

In the email, which was initially reported on by Michigan Advance and then obtained by The Washington Post, London details the abuse he said he had been subject to since announcing the order. He said a woman driving more than 70 mph tried to run him off the road twice in one night. He said someone also called him an expletive and then yelled, “I hope someone abuses your kids and forces you to watch!”

The county health official said those who opposed the mandate accused him of being a “deep state agent of liberal-progressive-socialist powers that are working to undo the America they love.”

Throughout each phase of the pandemic, health officials around the nation and world have endured public vitriol over covid-related restrictions. One county mandated security at vaccine clinics after workers faced increasing harassment. After a Tennessee school board mandated masks, one parent told a health-care official who testified at the meeting, “We will find you.” Anthony Fauci, the face of the nation’s coronavirus response, saw his security team strengthened after a rash of threats. Numerous public health officials have resigned, retired or been fired for pandemic-related reasons.

Joshua Sharfstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University, said public health officials have been a casualty of the politicization of the pandemic response. He said people don’t go into public health for the limelight, so this kind of attention can be especially jarring to those it targets.

“I'm worried for the safety of many public health officers who are having to handle the anger of people who have been whipped into a frenzy,” he said.

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Following the announcement of the Kent County mask mandate, which applied to children from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, the county’s board of commissioners held a meeting that attracted a crowd of hundreds. London attended virtually after receiving threats to his safety, commissioner Melissa LaGrand told The Washington Post.

LaGrand, a Democrat, said the largely unmasked crowd participated in public comment for about four hours. The yelling and insults were relentless, she said.

“Some of it was really, really angry,” LaGrand said. “It really felt like there was this sort of suppressed violence in the room with all the shouting.”

Describing the meeting in a statement to The Post, county commissioner Phil Skaggs said, “The anti-public health activists called Dr. London a ‘tyrant’ who was engaged in ‘child abuse’ and said he was forcing ‘satanic rituals’ of mask wearing and social distancing on students.”

Many members of the public demanded the board fire London or overturn the mandate, which county administrator and controller Al Vanderberg explained the county commissioners do not have the authority to do.

Just as Michigan is a purple state, Kent is a purple county. In the 2020 presidential election, just under 52 percent of residents voted for Joe Biden and just under 46 percent voted for Donald Trump.

About 62 percent of Kent County residents over 12 years old are fully vaccinated, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, just trailing the national average of 64 percent. The county, which is home to Grand Rapids, has seen more covid-19 cases than any other in the state’s western portion.

In the Aug. 22 email, which was sent a few days before that impassioned meeting, London told the commissioners he’s avoided talking about his faith publicly but wanted them to know he is a Christian whose beliefs led him toward public health.

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He said he believes every human is created in the image of a loving God and is worthy of protection, “especially when the cost of that protection is as simple as wearing paper/cloth masks for a few more months.”

London, who did not respond to requests for comment, said in the email he’s been called a traitor to the nation and to liberty.

London said he would not participate in “witch trials” where the opinions of legitimate experts are reduced to the same level of YouTube videos and “echo-chambers of junk science.”

The Kent County Health Department declined to comment for this article, and the Kent County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment about the threats London outlined.

County commissioner Robert Womack (D) said while he believes those who are against the mask mandate have the right to speak and deserve to be treated with respect, the threats and violence have to stop.

“Those that are against the mask mandate need to tell the extremists that they won’t stand for violence either,” he said. “I’ve never seen the county torn apart so much on one issue.”

Arguments that mask mandates violate an individual’s constitutional right to liberty might not cut it with the Supreme Court. Here's why. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

The county’s Democratic commissioners released a statement in support of London and the mask requirement, noting all of the county employees who have been “stretched to the breaking point during the pandemic.”

“We have been shocked to learn that Dr. London and his family have received threats to their physical safety and disheartened to see his reputation abused in public forums,” the statement read.

None of the Republican county commissioners contacted by The Post responded to requests for comment, though the board’s Republican chair, Mandy Bolter, denounced the threats in a statement to Michigan Advance.

Sharfstein, the Johns Hopkins professor, called for enhanced protection for public health officials and said leaders on both sides of the aisle need to draw the line at the harassment of and attacks on public health officials.

“Protecting public health and public health officials has to be one of the major lessons of this pandemic,” he said. “We have to come to a consensus that these kinds of attacks are totally outside of what's acceptable.”

In his email, London said there is nothing to be gained from engaging in dialogue with people like the woman who tried to run him off the road.

He referenced a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) by anti-government extremists, saying, “In many cases, these are the same people who dismiss the plot against the Governor as ‘just guys joking around’ and the January 6th insurrection as a peaceful patriotic protest,” he wrote.

In the final paragraph of the email, London issued one last plea:

“I need help. My team and I are broken*. I’m about done,” he said.

Read more:

A Georgia vaccine site had to close after protesters bullied health-care workers: ‘This is absolutely wrong’

Tennessee parents make threats after school board mandates masks: ‘We will find you'

Most states have cut back public health powers amid pandemic