Harassment of health officials widespread amid COVID-19, study finds

Local and state public health officials faced widespread harassment in the pandemic's first year, according to a study published March 17 in the American Journal of Public Health.

To identify and track harassment trends, researchers at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed results from a national survey of 583 local health departments conducted between March 2020 to January 2021. They also reviewed media reports about officials' departures, social media accounts, local boards of health meeting minutes and other resources for further context. 

The survey — conducted by the National Association of County and City Health Officials — identified 1,499 distinct reports of harassment during the first 11 months of the pandemic. These incidents involved personal threats against officials, vandalism and making their private information public, among other forms of harassment, according to The Washington Post.

Fifty-seven percent of public health departments surveyed had experienced harassment, and 222 public health officials left their positions during the survey period, researchers found. Thirty-six percent of those departures involved officials who had been harassed.

"This is a wake-up call for the field about the need to prioritize the long-term protection of our public health workforce," study author Beth Resnick, DrPH, assistant dean for practice and training and senior scientist in the department of health policy and management at the Bloomberg School, said in a Johns Hopkins news release. "Taking care of the workforce needs to be a fundamental component of the public health infrastructure that doesn't end when the pandemic does."

Study authors offered several strategies to better support public health officials, including offering training on how to respond to political and societal conflict, improving professional support systems and creating reporting systems for harassment incidents. 

View the full study here.


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