Healthcare workers, once cheered as heroes, now threatened and harassed

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Only 16 months ago, it was difficult to go a day without hearing the term "healthcare heroes" about the front-line healthcare professionals who faced the risks of COVID-19 to care for others. Now, many of these same professionals and their public health colleagues encounter harassment and threats in the fight against the virus. 

The hostility has reached a point where government officials are pleading with the public for a return to civility. 

Georgia's Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, MD, joined Gov. Brian Kemp to urge residents to stop harassing, bullying and threatening healthcare workers administering COVID-19 vaccines in a news conference Aug. 30. Their requests followed the closure of a mobile vaccine site where threats were made against the staff. 

"I've become aware that many of our line workers who are doing these vaccinations are receiving threats or receiving hostile emails, harassing emails," Dr. Toomey noted. "That's something that you know has happened to me early on. Maybe it comes with the territory or to someone in my position. But it shouldn't be happening to those nurses who are working in the field who are trying to keep this state safe." 

As of Sept. 2, 41.86 percent of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated

A spokesperson for Dr. Toomey's office told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the closed mobile vaccine site was in north Georgia, where an organized group of people arrived to harass and ridicule workers. The same spokesperson told Newsweek they would not provide the precise location of the event out of concern for intensifying threats.

"This is absolutely wrong," Dr. Toomey said in the news conference. "People are giving their lives to help people in the state. We Georgians can do better. We should be thanking people who are trying to give life-saving vaccines to people in our state." 

Hostility toward public health professionals has ebbed and flowed throughout the pandemic. Early on, nearly a quarter of more than 26,000 healthcare workers felt bullied, threatened or harassed because of their work, according to a CDC survey taken during a three-week period in late March and early April 2020. 

Now, coordinated demonstrations and threats are deliberately disrupting healthcare workers on the job or at home. 

In San Antonio, Methodist Healthcare System reported its nurses were threatened with guns, knives and death threats in mid-August when emergency rooms were strained by COVID-19. 

"When our staff experiences cursing, screaming, physical abuse, 'I am going to get my gun,' a knife pulled on them — it is terrifying," Jane McCurley, chief nurse executive for Methodist Healthcare System, told local CBS affiliate KENS 5. She noted that hostility was often prompted by guidelines for masking, visitation policies or wait times. 

An anti-vaccine influencer and his half-dozen followers traveled to Springfield, Mo., Aug. 16 to harass pharmacists in a Walmart, repeatedly telling them they would be "executed" for their "crimes against humanity." Among his barrage of false rhetoric were repeated warnings that pharmacists were violating the Nuremberg Code by administering COVID-19 vaccines. The group also made visits to a local CVS and Walgreens.  

In Kentucky, opponents of a workforce vaccination mandate at Edgewood, Ky.-based St. Elizabeth Healthcare organized a protest Aug. 24 at the home of the system's president and CEO, Garren Colvin. 

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