Harassment of public health workers widespread during pandemic, study finds

Public health workers have faced at least 1,499 cases of workplace harassment stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.

Published last week by the American Public Health Association, the study compiled its tally of workplace harassment against health care professionals by combining “media content and a national survey of local health departments in the United States.”

The driving force behind the increase in harassment during the pandemic, the study concludes, was the hyperpoliticization of how best to slow the spread of COVID-19. That ensuing cultural divide made targets of health care workers.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic and other co-occurring public health challenges, public health officials described experiencing threats and intimidation, social villainization and exclusion, and the undermining of their professional duties by poorly aligned politics and an inadequate public health infrastructure,” the study states.

Interviews with state and local health care providers included in the study revealed a startling pattern.

“I get threatening messages from people saying they’re watching me. They followed my family to the park and took pictures of my kids,” one health care professional based in the Midwest told the study’s authors. “I know it’s my job to be out front talking about the importance of public health — educating people, keeping them safe. Now it kind of scares me. … When they start photographing my family in public, I have to think, is it really worth it?”

Doctors at a hospital talk about a patient with COVID-19.

Doctors discuss a patient with COVID-19 at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn., in January. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

Ultimately, that health care worker opted to resign in 2020 rather than continue to endure threats. Overall, the study notes, “nonphysical workplace violence perpetrated by patients has been associated with reduced job satisfaction and burnout.”

Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the reports of attacks on public health officials “unacceptable.”

Since early 2020, just over 971,700 Americans have died of COVID-19, while nearly 80 million more have tested positive for the disease. While those figures alone would be enough to stretch health care workers to a breaking point, the additional stress caused by harassment from patients and community members upset over vaccines and mitigation measures has been enough to cause many to reconsider their career choice.

“I was trashed on Facebook, like, every day. My kids were accosted at school. They would get e-mails about the fact that their dad was shutting down restaurants and requiring masks,” a doctor practicing in the Western U.S. told the researchers. “So, you know, people talked to my kids. My wife was accosted at the grocery store. I know one county health officer, south of me, who ended up with a death threat. And so it’s surprising the amount of anger that came out over this. They’ll still buckle your seat belt, they’ll put their tray table up when they’re on the airplane, they’ll give their kid an MMR shot before they go into sixth grade. And all of a sudden the mask becomes this huge invasion of their private liberty, and so that was surprising.”

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