Study: Public Health Workers Faced Widespread Harassment During Pandemic

More than half of the public health departments that responded to the survey said their employees experienced harassment.

Study: Public Health Workers Faced Widespread Harassment During Pandemic

(Photo: tashatuvango, Adobe Stock)

A new study published last week by the American Public Health Association (APHA) found public health workers endured at least 1,499 cases of workplace harassment during the first 11 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study gathered its tally of workplace harassment against healthcare professionals by combining “media content and a national survey of local health departments in the United States” from March 2020 to Jan. 2021.

Researchers determined the driving force behind the increase in harassment during the pandemic was the hyper-politicization of how best to slow the spread of the virus, creating a cultural divide that made healthcare workers targets.

“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,” reads the study.

In addition to at least 1,499 harassment experiences, which made up 57% of responding departments, the study also identified 222 position departures by public health officials nationally — 36% alongside reports of harassment.

“Public health officials described experiencing structural and political undermining of their professional duties, marginalization of their expertise, social villainization, and disillusionment,” the study continued.

Researchers interviewed state and local healthcare providers and found those close to them were also being harassed.

“I get threatening messages from people saying they’re watching me. They followed my family to the park and took pictures of my kids,” said one healthcare professional who is based in the Midwest. “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?”

A doctor in the Western U.S. said he was “trashed” on Facebook and his children and wife were “accosted” at school and in public.

“It’s surprising the amount of anger that came out over this,” he told the study authors. “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.”

The researchers say interventions to reduce harassment of health officials are needed for a “sustainable public health system.” Recommendations include training leaders to respond to political conflict, improving colleague support networks, providing trauma-informed worker support, investing in long-term public health staffing and infrastructure, and establishing workplace violence reporting systems and legal protections.

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