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Ohio’s Amy Acton inspires admiration, and a backlash, with tough coronavirus response

People support Amy Acton on May 4 in a reaction to protesters coming to the Ohio health director’s home. (Barbara J. Perenic/AP)

It was a sunny spring day in the Ohio suburb of Bexley. Along streets lined with old-growth sycamores and maples, residents were out cutting the grass. Children were playing on front lawns. Then the men with the guns showed up.

“We don’t see people in our neighborhood wearing full military outfits, armed with handguns,” said Tim Madison, a lawyer and former city council member. “It was shocking, to say the least.”

But Madison knew why they were there: for his next-door neighbor Amy Acton.

An obscure state official only months ago, Acton — who was homeless as a child in hardscrabble Youngstown — has become a white-coated emblem of her state’s forceful coronavirus response. To her legions of fans, she’s a hero whose aggressive action as Ohio health director has saved lives, and whose calm, clear and compassionate style is a national model for how leaders should be communicating amid an unparalleled public health crisis.

Yet Acton has also become a target, and not only for the protesters — some armed, most not — who have descended on her home.

One Republican state representative denounced the 54-year-old doctor as a “medical dictator.” And the GOP-dominated Ohio House recently voted to strip much of her power, with members agitating against the widespread closures that have brought the state crushing economic pain.

The backlash against Acton reflects a broader rebuke of the medical advisers who are counseling caution as the nation enters its third month since coronavirus shutdowns kicked off. Although polls show most Americans remain willing to accept the trade-offs that experts say are necessary to curb the virus’s spread, demonstrators, lawmakers and top officials — not least the president — have been far less patient.

Legislators in Pennsylvania recently led a capitol-steps protest demanding the resignation of the state health secretary. In Wisconsin, the GOP-dominated legislature filed suit against the governor’s health advisers, prompting the state Supreme Court to strike down stay-at-home orders and thirsty patrons to throng suddenly reopened bars.

At the national level, senators have undercut infectious disease point man Anthony S. Fauci — as has the president he serves — after Fauci admonished against a “cavalier” attitude toward reopening the economy.

“I’m a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice, according to the best scientific evidence,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, replied last week after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told him he was not the “end all.”

President Trump was displeased. “He wants to play all sides of the equation,” the president complained when asked about Fauci’s warnings. Trump said Fauci’s reservations about reopening schools were, in particular, “not an acceptable answer.”

By contrast, Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, has stood by his top medical adviser. Acton, DeWine has said in response to attacks from members of his own party, is “a good, compassionate and honorable person” who has “worked nonstop to save lives and protect her fellow citizens.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) defended members of the media and his staff from protesters during a press briefing on May 4. (Video: The Ohio Channel)

He has also insisted that protesters and other critics target him, not her. “The buck stops with me,” DeWine said this month as demonstrators were unsettling Acton’s Bexley neighbors. “These decisions are my decisions.”

Acton’s influence, however, has been undeniable.

With Acton at his side, DeWine led the nation in shutting down sources of the coronavirus’s spread, including large gatherings, schools and restaurants. His handling of the crisis has been hailed as a model by public health experts, and it has won approval from an astonishing 86 percent of Ohioans. The state has over 28,000 cases, around half the total of its smaller neighbor Michigan.

At their regular news conferences, the governor has often yielded the floor to Acton and allowed her to explain the finer points of medical knowledge about the novel coronavirus. She has also taken on much of the emotional hand-holding.

“I don’t want you to be afraid. I am not afraid. I am determined,” she said on the March day that she issued the state’s stay-at-home order. “I want you to think about the fact that this is our one shot in this country. All of us are going to have to sacrifice.”

Her quotes have been emblazoned on T-shirts and coffee mugs, and a Facebook fan club has more than 130,000 members. A popular Internet meme in Ohio includes a photo of Acton in her signature outfit, along with the caption: “Not all heroes wear capes. Mine wears a white coat.”

Those who have known Acton for decades say they are not surprised. She grew up poor in blue-collar Youngstown, living one winter out of a tent and surviving abuse. The chance to attend Northeast Ohio Medical University was her ticket out of that life and on to a 30-plus-year career in medical practice and policy, culminating in DeWine’s selection of her for the medical director job last year.

The previous two directors had not been doctors. DeWine said in announcing the pick — the last he made as he assembled a majority-female cabinet — that he was looking for someone with a strong background in public health and preventive medicine to refocus the department on such issues as substance abuse, youth suicide and infant mortality, all of which had plagued the state. Acton had been working on such issues for the Columbus Foundation, a philanthropic adviser, and had studied them as a professor at Ohio State University. Her academic work had taken her as far afield as Rwanda, which, she noted during her introductory news conference, had a lower infant mortality rate than some neighborhoods of Columbus.

DeWine said he was also looking for someone with empathy and an ability to understand the problems of the citizens she would be serving. When the governor interviewed Acton, the first question he asked was about her childhood.

“She was always able to connect with people, and we see that now especially,” said Rochelle Rosian, a former classmate of Acton’s who is a doctor at Cleveland Clinic. “She’s educating Ohioans, knowing that knowledge is power.”

Not everyone, of course, has appreciated her advice. The protesters at her home in Bexley, a suburb of Columbus, have numbered in the dozens out of a state of nearly 12 million. But they have attracted widespread attention with their aggressive tactics, breaking the calm of a peaceful neighborhood with bullhorn-amplified invective.

Some slogans have been tame: “Dr. Amy Over-Re-Acton” and “Hairstylists are Essential.” But much of the rhetoric has been anti-Semitic and sexist, said Madison, the next-door neighbor. (Acton is Jewish.)

Neighbors have responded by planting “Dr. Amy Acton Fan Club” yard signs and by sitting in Acton’s lawn in a show of solidarity whenever the protesters come around. The two sides have repeatedly squared off — one socially distanced and wearing masks, the other massed together and not.

“It’s really bizarre,” Madison said. “We just sit there silently. They’re screaming and yelling. It’s terrible.”

Madison said he believes the protesters first demonstrate at the nearby capitol building before shifting to Acton’s house.

But the health director’s critics are well represented within the statehouse, as well as outside. State Rep. Nino Vitale (R) has frequently derided Acton as a “dictator” as well as “an unelected, globalist health director.”

The Republican majority in the House passed legislation this month — with no Democratic support — that would dramatically curtail Acton’s authority, effectively nullifying her orders if they are not endorsed by a legislative panel.

The legislation is considered unlikely to pass in the Ohio Senate, and DeWine has said he would veto it even if it does. But Republican legislators said they would continue to press to limit Acton’s reach.

“Unbridled power with no oversight or accountability is a recipe for economic calamity and a loss of freedom,” said state Rep. Derek Merrin (R), who voted for the measure and supports allowing all Ohio businesses to immediately reopen. “That’s what we have in Ohio.”

Merrin described Acton — a registered Democrat who campaigned for President Barack Obama — as a negative influence on the state’s GOP governor. She has flip-flopped on questions such as whether to recommend that Ohioans wear masks, he said, and has promoted models that exaggerate the virus’s toll.

Allies of Acton say the only reason those dire forecasts have not come true is that the state acted preemptively to head off the worst of the virus’s effects.

“She’s done phenomenally well,” said Rep. Emilia Sykes, who leads Democrats in the Ohio House.

Sykes has a degree in public health but said the legislature should have no business telling a medical expert how to do her job in the midst of a crisis. “It is a grossly negligent act to think that 10 legislators are better situated to decide,” she said.

Sykes said she believes much of the criticism of Acton, who declined an interview request for this story, stems from sexism: The men who dominate in Ohio politics, she said, are uncomfortable with a woman wielding so much power. “If you worked with the people I work with, you would understand exactly what I mean,” she said. “It’s very clear that female leadership is not as respected.”

Merrin described that idea as “ridiculous.”

DeWine announced Thursday that much of Ohio’s economy will reopen by the end of the month, including pools, day-care centers, gyms and sports leagues. That’s despite the fact that cases in Ohio have plateaued, not dropped as DeWine had said he wanted before a wide-scale reopening.

Sykes said she worries that DeWine let the political pressure get to him and relaxed restrictions before it was time. “There are a lot of people rooting for the governor,” she said. “But we’re very concerned about what happens next.”

Acton is apparently one of them. While she stood by DeWine for Thursday’s announcement, and endorsed it, she was careful to note that the success or failure of the state’s reopening will depend largely on how people respond. She encouraged Ohio citizens to continue to respect social distancing and to proceed “carefully,” recognizing that the threat remains.

“Each and every one of us should be judicious,” she said. “We have choices to make.”