Anthony Fauci: Getting death threats for me and my family, and harassing my daughters to the point where I have to get security, it's amazing. I wouldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams that people who object to things that are pure public health principles are so set against it and don't like what you and I say, namely in the word of science, that they actually threaten you.
Tanzina Vega: That's Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading expert on infectious diseases, speaking to CNN, Sanjay Gupta, about threats he and his family have received because of his work. Dr. Fauci is not alone. Public health officials across the US are also receiving threats from people who are against the policies they put forth to combat the coronavirus, things like recommendations to wear masks and practice social distancing. Michelle Mello is a professor of law and a professor of medicine at Stanford, and she's been researching this exact topic. Michelle, welcome to the show.
Michelle Mello: Happy to be here.
Tanzina: Michelle, you wrote an article about the attacks on public health officials during COVID-19. What was it that prompted you to even look into this?
Michelle: Well, it happens that one of my bosses at Stanford is married to our Santa Clara County local health officer here in the Bay area, so I do have a personal connection to somebody who's experienced these kind of attacks.
Tanzina: Tell us a little bit about what kinds of attacks we're talking about.
Michelle: Well, across the country, we've really seen a number of things that may, to your audience, seem pretty shocking and are unusual even in the American context. We have seen the usual internet trolling, but the attacks have taken on a highly personal and almost violent dimension across the country.
We've seen health officers subject to doxing, the exposure of their personal information like their addresses or loved ones' names on the internet, angry and sometimes armed protests are showing up at their private residences, vandalism of their offices and homes, lots of harassing telephone calls and even death threats to the point of having to have private security details assigned to their families.
Tanzina: Michelle, one of the things that prompted me, I saw the research here and then saw that Dr. Anthony Fauci has needed to get his own extra private security because I believe his family had been threatened. Are we primarily talking about high profile figures like that, or are we talking about anyone who's on the front lines dealing with coronavirus cases in particular?
Michelle: Well, we're talking about people who ordinarily are about as low profile as you can get. Local public health is the invisible angel that keeps us all healthy, but most of us until this pandemic had never heard of or seen our local health officer. They have been in the news lately on television and the newspaper a lot, so they're no longer such private figures. These are not high profile figures. They're not national figures in most cases. They don't have a political agenda. They are doctors trying to do their jobs.
Tanzina: Who are making these threats?
Michelle: Well, it comes from a variety of quarters. A leader and catalyst in this movement has been the anti-vaccination movement here in the US that has all of a sudden pivoted from their usual agenda of attacking public figures who advocate vaccination to going after health officers who are advocating masking and the extension of stay-at-home or business closure orders.
It's not only these groups. They've been joined by thousands of people across the country who are just really disgruntled and incredibly stressed by the longterm economic impact and social isolation that has stemmed from public health orders during the pandemic.
Tanzina: Medical professionals take a Hippocratic oath to serve whoever it is that needs their help. One of the things that's interesting to me about this moment is how, unwillingly I imagine, many medical professionals, nurses, and doctors in particular have been politicized. I imagine this is almost against their own will. Are you seeing that in the circles that you're dealing with, that these folks they're really going in to try and save lives?
I recall images from the earlier on at the peak of the pandemic in certain cities around the country where doctors and nurses were not only petitioning for better PPE but also standing to prevent protesters from accessing hospital areas. This feels like doctors and nurses didn't necessarily sign up to be in such a political battle.
Michelle: It's interesting the politicization of first responders because those on the front lines who are actually caring for COVID patients have been politicized as heroes in this pandemic, but the same groups of individuals, doctors, and nurses who are working in the public health sector have been demonized as villains. They're all working toward the same goals. We need to understand that although they execute their objectives in different ways, they're all working towards the same goal, and so are we. It's really striking to me that there's been this polarization in how folks have viewed first responders and public health doctors.
Tanzina: Have we heard anything from the Trump administration or politicians at any level of government about this? Are there any efforts made to protect medical workers? I'm asking that because recently here in New York, actually in New Jersey, there was a federal judge whose family was attacked, and now there are talks of increasing protections for federal judges as a result of that, as a result of doxxing and personal attacks. I'm wondering if that is now transferring over to the medical professionals and health professionals you're talking about?
Michelle: Well, we have to distinguish between medical professionals who are on the front line response like the ones who are working in hospitals. The ones I'm talking about are those who are working in public health departments. I'm not aware of specific problems involving the folks who are working in hospitals other than nobody wants to stand next to them at the grocery store. The public health officials really have had to have protection stepped up.
Unfortunately, most of our elected officials to the extent that they're speaking to this issue at all, have been joining in the attacks. There are folks who are making a name for themselves politically by joining in the chorus of attacks against public health officials. In some cases, their own public health officers saying things like they're anti-democratic, they're tyrannical, when in reality those same health officers are the only people in that state who can issue these orders. They're executing planning done by other elected officials who then hide behind this rhetoric.
It really is, in my view, despicable that instead of offering support to these hardworking underpaid and under attack health officers, state and local officials, and in some cases congressman and the President have joined in the attacks. The President himself has been the fomenter-in-chief here retweeting such statements as, "Everyone is lying, the CDC, media, democrats, our doctors, everyone we are told to trust." That kind of statement fanned the flames.
Tanzina: Michelle, did your research show whether or not there was a difference in health officers who are in red states versus blue states, or our folks that work in these positions across the board subject to this type of harassment?
Michelle: We really have seen it in all kinds of communities. Certainly there is a red and blue divide in willingness to accept public health measures like masking. To the extent that you're leading a community that's more red than blue, you might have a larger segment of the population going after you. Some of the people who have been under attack are in heavily blue communities where actually most of the population really supports what they're doing. Polling is very much in their favor, but there is a vocal extreme, a vocal minority, that is dominating attention.
Tanzina: Is there anything that public health officials can do to protect themselves?
Michelle: To protect themselves, many of them do need security details, and they need elected officials to stand up and indicate that when these actions cross the line into illegal forms of harassment, that they'll be subject to prosecution. In terms of self-defense strategies, I think it may be late in the game for this, but there are some things that I think we know help to cultivate public trust and buy into coercive public health legal measures.
Polling shows us that when people feel that they have a say in public health policy agendas when "people like me" can influence agendas in public health policy, they are more likely to accept laws, even the ones that they don't love, so I think there are opportunities for some health officers to double down on the transparency and candor in their public communications.
We do have examples of where this has been done extraordinary well. I think it helps to humanize health officers, to telegraph that they're really struggling with these decisions, they don't take them lightly, and also that they have the support and consultation of a number of other people while they're not acting alone in imposing these orders.
Tanzina: Do you know of any health officers who have decided to leave the job as a result of this, because it doesn't feel like the virus is not going away as soon as many of us would have liked, and people are going to have to make policies and implement policies until we've got some clarity on what the next phase of this is? Have folks that you know decided to leave their jobs as a result?
Michelle: Absolutely. I think the count is up near 30 now of health officers who have either resigned or have been forced out by other elected officials since the start of the disease pandemic because of the politicization of their orders. That includes Oxiris Barbot, who was the New York City Health Commissioner. It includes Nicole Quick, the Health Commissioner of Orange County, our most affected county in California in terms of COVID cases. It includes West Virginia health officer for the state, Cathy Slemp, so lots of folks who are dealing with very, very difficult situations. Simply, it's just not reasonable to expect them to go on month after month in this kind of climate, especially when they're not getting any support from other officials.
Tanzina: You mentioned Oxiris Barbot, and I know that was big issue here in New York, particularly because she clashed with Mayor Bill de Blasio. Are we seeing a lot of that as well, just internally among officers and public health officials, and also just the other officials that they're dealing with? It feels like-- I don't know if that was very specific to New York City politics or if that's also happening across the board?
Michelle: I think that is happening in a lot of communities, yes, where you have a schism between elected branches of government that represent communities that have a particular ideological bend and health officers who have been serving for many, many administrations, many, many years, and who are acting on the science. At this point in the pandemic, people are fed up with the science. They want a balance between health concerns and economic and other concerns.
Again, some health officers have been very good at explaining how public health orders balance. Those concerns and others who are maybe less transparent really have been confronted by a lot of attacks from elsewhere in government that are responding to local political pressures themselves.
Tanzina: You mentioned earlier we are having to differentiate between threatening health officers and health officials, and making, and threatening frontline workers like doctors and nurses. Are doctors and nurses subject to any type of politicization and threats right now because of the role that they-- what they could possibly represent, or have they gotten off? Have they not been in the cross hairs, if you will?
Michelle: I'm not aware of those kinds of attacks. I think it's more just that what we hear from them is the difficulty that they have in their personal lives because people know they work with sick people. They don't want to be around them and they don't want to be around their kids. It's the usual story in any pandemic where if you're the child of somebody who's working with an affected patient, nobody wants their kid in school with you. I think that causes some difficulties for them, but it's a different quality and caliber of attack than what we've been talking about with public health officers.
Tanzina: Michelle Mello is a professor of law at Stanford Law School and a professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. Michelle, thanks so much.
Michelle: Thank you.
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