Health workers fear hostility, harassment in wake of COVID

Problem Solvers

DENVER (KDVR) — Long before a violent mob swept through the nation’s capital, public health workers in Colorado could feel rising tensions.

Not because of the election, but because of the politics of COVID, which has led to hostility toward some public health experts from anti-maskers and others due to COVID-related restrictions.

“They are acting out in a way that’s aggressive and harassing. It’s really alarming to me and my colleagues across the country,” said Theresa Anselmo, who quit as the executive director for the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials at the end of December.

She provided the Problem Solvers a list of 20 public health leaders in Colorado who quit or retired in 2020 and one public health director who was fired in Rio Grande County for her efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“There comes a point where we all have to, for ourselves, decide that we prioritize our health and our well-being, our own safety, over a job,” said Anselmo.

In May, Arapahoe County Sheriff Deputies arrested Daniel Pesch for vandalizing the Tri-County Health Department after rocks were thrown through the building’s windows.

Comments on the Tri-County Health Facebook page have included threatening posts like this one:

“How many out there would like to know the home addresses and phone numbers of the leadership team of Tri-County Health? They were pretty easy to find out. Perhaps I’ll place them on the windows of every establishment they are issuing warnings to….You want want to make this a war??? No Problem.”

Last month, Mike Hall, the co-chair for the Republican party in Parker created a Facebook page. There, he posted the names and addresses for two Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials, writing in a since deleted post: “You want to be Anti-Americans, Patriots are going to show you the error of your ways.  We didn’t ask for this but you brought it on.”

The next day, Hall would take down the page and issue an apology writing, “In hindsight, it was poor judgment.”

“The rhetoric is getting pretty bad. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Joss Schlossberg, a journalist with ColoradoCovidWatch.

Schlossberg has documented online harassment he’s seen directed toward public health workers and even himself.

One message he received said, “F**K you Nazi mask-wearing pieces of S**t. You belong in a toilet not on this earth. One day we will put you 6 feet below the soil.”

“I’m sorry, that’s a threat,” said Schlossberg who reported the person to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Ultimately, Schlossberg said he decided not press charges after deputies spoke to the man behind the threat, but in many cases, he’s had law enforcement tell him it won’t get involved, calling the messages free speech.

 “I’ve been arrested for handing out brochures on a public sidewalk. I do kind of find it fascinating that people can say, let’s basically burn down a house and that’s being called free speech. I think that line of free speech ends at incitement to violence,” said Schlossberg, who referenced a Facebook forum on public health when a person wrote about Governor Jared Polis’ house, posting, “Someone should have set it on fire.”

Anselmo said too many public health experts no longer feel safe during their jobs because of online harassment.

“People know better than to say, ‘I’m going to come burn your house down’ or, ‘I’m going to shoot you,’ but if they say, ‘I’m going to find out where you live,’ the implied threat is the same. I’m going to find out where you live to do you harm,” Anselmo said.

Anselmo said the hostility is often more pronounced in smaller rural communities where distrust of science runs higher, and community members are more likely to know who their public health director is and are willing to confront them in public or online.

 “The entire public health workforce has seen an exodus of individuals. They are just people, and they are dealing with pandemic fatigue and the exhaustion of staying at home and not seeing loved ones just like everybody else is. And layer on top of that, the threats and the harassment and the vitriol and anger and angst that the communities that they serve are aiming at them and it just amplifies and magnifies the distress.”

Anselmo warns the bench of public health experts is thin and as more professionals leave, communities may have a difficult time filling those positions.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re losing. We’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge and a brain trust of people in public health.”

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