Opponents of a mask order recently came to the house of Chris Farnitano, a public health officer in Contra Costa County, across the bay from San Francisco. On the sidewalk, they drew an arrow pointing to his residence, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Tyranny is not the answer,” someone wrote in chalk. In Orange County, in Southern California, late last month, an angry group spoke out at a county supervisors meeting against an order requiring face coverings. “One person suggested that the order might make it necessary to invoke Second Amendment rights to bear arms, while another read aloud the home address of the order’s author — the county’s chief health officer, Dr. Nichole Quick,” according to a report by Kaiser Health News. She was later given personal protection from the sheriff, and then, after another meeting that included criticism from the board of supervisors, resigned. Seven senior public health officials in California have quit since the pandemic began.
Amy Acton, the Ohio health director, drew widespread praise for her calm demeanor and her participation in Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s decisive and rapid response to the pandemic. But as the lockdown stretched on, protesters demonstrated in front of her house. Outside the statehouse, a protester held up a sign saying, “Dr. Amy is Killing Ohio!” Ms. Acton resigned on June 11 but remains an adviser to Mr. DeWine.
Ms. Acton’s experience is being repeated over and over across the country, even as the virus surges out of control in some places. Responsibility for public health falls predominantly on states and counties, and they have borne the brunt of frustration and confusion over the pandemic. At least 27 state and local health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April across 13 states, a review by Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press showed. Others have faced ugly death threats and been forced to ask for security protection.
It is difficult to maintain public trust in the teeth of widespread anxiety, harder when circumstances call for unpopular measures. But these inevitable challenges have been compounded by Mr. Trump’s instinct to politicize the pandemic response and drag it into the culture wars. The president eggs on anti-lockdown demonstrators with calls to “liberate” their states; he refuses to wear a mask; he spouts nonsense about the virus fading away; he endorses therapies that are useless or worse. The resulting hostility and disrespect for science and medicine is corrosive and counterproductive. The nation can ill afford to lose public health expertise. It needs the best advice that public health professionals can muster at this moment of extreme duress.