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

A View From the Field

As the executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), I have seen firsthand the stress, strain, and cognitive dissonance that results from the denigration and defamation of our public health leaders. On the basis of my conversations with state and territorial health officials, I posit that almost every state health officer experienced some form of harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most common are disparaging and offensive social media posts; public sharing of their work and personal cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses, residential addresses; or other virtual bullying. In some cases, this harassment includes the higher-profile cases of death threats, armed protests, and threats of physical violence requiring law enforcement protection.

How have we arrived at this point? How can a small but vocal segment of the population believe it is appropriate to threaten and harass health officials whose primary job for the past two years has been to protect us from a novel infectious disease that has claimed the lives of more than 900 000 Americans? One explanation is COVID-19's emergence at the start of the 2020 presidential election year, appearing in a hyperpartisan environment full of "gotcha" moments and political scorekeeping. Facing the threat of COVID-19, America's leaders could have rallied around a collective, warlike response to an emerging global pandemic, but instead some used the virus and our response to it to strengthen, not to heal, bitter partisan divides. Health officials became targets of this partisan rhetoric and the public outcry that followed. The former Secretary of Health and Environment for Kansas, Dr. Lee Norman, astutely remarked on the Rachel Maddow television show shortly after his resignation in November 2021 that "public health has always been political … but never so partisan."[10]