PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Vilified, threatened with violence and in some cases suffering from burnout, dozens of state and local public health leaders around the U.S. have resigned or have been fired amid the coronavirus outbreak, a testament to how politically combustible masks, lockdowns and infection data have become.
One of the latest departures came Sunday, when California's public health director, Dr. Sonia Angell, was ousted following a technical glitch that caused a delay in reporting hundreds of thousands of virus test results — information used to make decisions about reopening businesses and schools.
Last week, New York City’s health commissioner was replaced after months of friction with the Police Department and City Hall.
A review by the Kaiser Health News service and The Associated Press finds at least 49 state and local public health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April across 23 states. The list has grown by more than 20 people since the AP and KHN started keeping track in June.
Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the numbers stunning. He said they reflect burnout, as well as attacks on public health experts and institutions from the highest levels of government, including from President Donald Trump, who has sidelined the CDC during the pandemic.
"The overall tone toward public health in the U.S. is so hostile that it has kind of emboldened people to make these attacks,” Frieden said.
The last few months have been "frustrating and tiring and disheartening" for public health officials, said former West Virginia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Cathy Slemp, who was forced to resign by Republican Gov. Jim Justice in June.
“You care about community, and you’re committed to the work you do and societal role that you’re given. You feel a duty to serve, and yet it’s really hard in the current environment," Slemp said in an interview Monday.