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Public Health Workers Face Threats, Unemployment While Fighting Virus


Physical threats, personal attacks on social media, lack of support from politicians - public health officials are dealing with an onslaught of anger as they try and deal with this pandemic. The United States already has a poorly funded and patchwork public health system, and its officials organize the infrastructure that allows it to work. Now an alarming number of them are either leaving or being forced out of their jobs when the country needs them the most.

A review by Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press found that at least 27 state and local health leaders have resigned, retired or were fired since April across 13 states. And one of those health officials is Emily Brown. She was let go as the director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department last month. We reached her in Del Norte, Colo.

Welcome to the program.

EMILY BROWN: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about your experience. What kind of pressure did you face when this pandemic was underway?

BROWN: I think the biggest piece was just trying to take in and understand just the onslaught of information that was constantly changing and then trying to take that information and translate it back to our community. And then, as there started to be restrictions put in place at the state level, there was an initial reaction of a lot of support and people coming together. And then as this went along and then especially as different communities and counties across the state started to open back up, there just was this rise of vitriol throughout the community to get back to normal living. And it was extremely intense and scary to navigate at some points.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me - when you say scary, can you give me an example?

BROWN: It was really interesting timing that our state public health directors association had held a meeting about a week before I had gotten more personal threats, and our state agency director said that about 80% of the directors that were on this call noted that they had received some sort of personal threat to themselves or to their property.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eighty percent.

BROWN: It was a huge number. And about a week later, we had seen a picture of the six of our public health directors posted on a Facebook page that was about reopening businesses. And there was threats around firearms and around stringing people up, comments about the fact that we were women or the fact that, just based on what we looked like, we obviously weren't health experts and shouldn't be listened to. But there was so much stress on our system that to be attacked that personally just added to the struggle of trying to go on with the behind-the-scenes pandemic response.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What happened during the meeting when you were told you were being let go?

BROWN: I was asked to come into the meeting. I was told things weren't working out and that I either needed to step down or that - would need to be fired. Whenever there's a public health situation, it often gets political, and this pandemic response for coronavirus has just been unprecedented. And I could really see for myself that - from very early on, with my board of health, what I thought were important steps to take - some of those times that was either uncomfortable or not the direction that our leadership wanted to go. And I kind of say I just finally pushed too hard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried about what you're seeing as a former public health official?

BROWN: It's very scary. The state of Colorado, over the last several years, has acknowledged how poorly funded the public health infrastructure is nationally and in Colorado. And at the very start of the pandemic - early March - I had some optimism that this would be an opportunity for the broader public to see the value of what public health does and hopefully push for a better system - that we would transform the system. And at this point, I worry that things will be gutted even more and there will be even less willingness to have a strong infrastructure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Emily Brown is the former director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department in rural Colorado.

Thank you very much.

BROWN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.