Harassment of Health Officials: A Significant Threat to the Public's Health

Michael R. Fraser, PhD, MS


Am J Public Health. 2022;112(5):728-730. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


The article by Ward et al. in this issue of AJPH (p. 736) aptly quantifies the harassment and devaluation experienced by many public health officials in the earliest and darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Local and state public health officials, who before the pandemic mainly worked behind the scenes to protect the public's health, were quickly thrust into the spotlight alongside their governors, mayors, and county commissioners to explain public health mitigation efforts such as business and school closures, mandatory mask orders, and social distancing recommendations. This new visibility led some members of the public to celebrate and thank these public health heroes, and others to disparage and vilify them.

The harassment of health officials has taken many forms. One of the most dramatic was the armed protest in the front yard of Ohio's then health officer, Amy Acton.[1] Others reported receiving death threats, being physically assaulted, and being the targets of racial, religious, transphobic, and sexist hate speech by phone, mail, or social media.[2–6] In some of these cases, the threats and harassment warranted state police protection with officers detailed to personal residences or police protection at public vaccination events, county council meetings, and school board meetings.[7–9] These events were serious, led to the resignation of several local and state health officials, and resulted in many others ending their public participation in press briefings and news conferences and playing a less public role in their jurisdiction's COVID-19 response.

Controversy and criticism in public health is not new, nor are isolated experiences of harassment of health officers. Before COVID-19, state and territorial health officials faced opposition from members of the public for supporting efforts to ban youth vaping and the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, for failing to support (and in some states for supporting) the use of cannabis for medical or recreational use, for enforcing vaccination requirements for school entry, or for supporting taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. But these prior controversies and their discontents were few, local in nature, and less vehement. In their study, Ward et al. found that more than half of local health directors surveyed reported harassment of themselves, their staff, or their agencies in the study period (n = 1499) between March 2020 and January 2021. As Ward et al. describe, COVID-19–related harassment has been far more widespread, far better organized, and much more violent than anything we have seen before.