Health officers face unprecedented threats, intimidation | August 7, 2020 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 7, 2020

Health officers face unprecedented threats, intimidation

Amid COVID-19, some current officers have resigned

by Sue Dremann

While working long hours to lead the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, health officers nationwide, including Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody, have been subjected to unprecedented threats and intimidation over their directives to keep businesses and schools closed and their orders that the public should wear masks.

Health officers in Shasta, Orange, San Benito, San Bernardino, Yolo, Nevada, Butte and Orange counties have left their posts since the pandemic began. Two state health officers have also departed, according to Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California.

Some said they planned retirement; others left for other reasons, but all have departed during the most stressful times of the pandemic. It's likely the timing isn't coincidental, she said on Monday.

"No one ever says 'the pressure got to me,' but burnout is certainly a factor. They have spent countless hours working without a break, and on top of that they are being harassed and threatened by the very people they are trying to protect," she said.

These threats reach to the very top. On Wednesday, the nation's leading infectious disease officer, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN he has received death threats and his three daughters have been harassed. Fauci has had to hire security for himself and his family. He said he is not going to step down.

In California, Orange County Chief Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick resigned on June 8 after receiving threats over her order for residents to wear face masks, according to news reports. A local anti-vaccination attorney also publicly exposed Quick's boyfriend's name and disclosed her home address, saying protesters in masks were planning to show up and do calisthenics on her front doorstep until they passed out, according to CalMatters.

In San Diego, a caller during a virtual county board of supervisors meeting ridiculed Dr. Wilma Wooten's appearance and gave out her home address, according to KPBS.

San Benito County Health Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib abruptly resigned April 28 after the Board of Supervisors criticized his orders to contain the coronavirus. Formerly Santa Clara County's public health officer, Fenstersheib now heads this county's COVID-19 testing task force under Cody.

Cody is among the most prominent and visible faces in the fight against COVID-19. She led Bay Area health officers in what became the country's first stay-at-home order. Praised early on for her foresight and leadership, as the pandemic has worn on, she has faced at times scathing criticism for a notably cautious approach to reopening the economy.

A May 23, full-page ad published in the San Jose Mercury News publicly attacked her integrity. Paulette Altmaier, former Cisco vice president and a philanthropist, "On Behalf of the Suffering Residents of Santa Clara County" accused Cody of "cratering our economy" and demanded she "permanently donate your salary and future pension toward the relief of those you are impoverishing" as a moral obligation "to share the pain you are inflicting on others."

Cody also has faced multiple threats. The Santa Clara County Sheriff is investigating, a sheriff's spokesman said.

Cody did not return a request for comment regarding the threats. The county, in a July 1 statement, condemned the behaviors.

"The county of Santa Clara is grateful to our public health officer for having the courage to make science-based decisions, which, with the overwhelming support of the community, have saved thousands of lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Unfortunately, these decisions have placed a spotlight that has made our public health officer the target of serious threats from a few individuals. Even though those individuals represent a tiny fraction, we take those threats extremely seriously and are taking all the necessary steps.

"We condemn any effort to harm or intimidate our public health officer, an individual who deserves our respect and appreciation for having the bravery to make the tough calls needed to protect the health and wellbeing of all our residents, including the most vulnerable members of our community," the announcement stated.

During a phone interview in late July, Supervisor Joe Simitian said that, while there are going to be hard questions asked of public health officials in a crisis, "to threaten the safety and well-being of anyone working to keep us safe is appalling."

It is a line that should never be crossed, he said.

"I'm concerned there are too many people who think it's OK to cross that line. In almost any crisis, circumstances bring out the best and the worst in people," he said. "This is one of those times when even a small minority and not even a significant minority, can do real damage."

DeBurgh said the threats and intimidation might have a chilling effect on public health, both during and after the pandemic. She is worried communities could lose accomplished individuals such as Cody in the wake of the pressure. Those doctors and related medical professionals could choose to go into the much more lucrative private practice rather than put up with the demands of their public health roles, she said.

"Who is going to want to step into this role if by doing so they are going to be threatened?" she said.

Taken altogether, the burnout, threats and intimidation experienced by public health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic could have devastating and long-lasting impacts on public health agencies for years to come, she said.

The pandemic has exposed longtime and ongoing weaknesses in the public health system, she said. While public health officers have come under scrutiny for not ramping up testing more quickly during the pandemic, DeBurgh said systemic underfunding of public health agencies is to blame.

"Many public health labs have closed in recent years. Since 2003, 10 local public health laboratories have closed in California. There are now 29 local public health labs in our state, the same number there were in 1950, when the population of California was just over 10 million," she said in an email.

This erosion affects the health of the community, she said, noting the current consequences: COVID-19 tests take longer and community outreach and awareness campaigns become more limited and take longer to roll out.

During non-pandemic times, public health officers focus on other issues pertaining to community health, from sexually transmitted diseases to environmental health to childhood vaccinations.

"When public health works, it's invisible," she said. People never hear about the many diseases their public health departments prevent. There's no cholera in the water, for example, because of public health policies, testing and enforcement, she said.

Cody has remained steadfast in her determination to not let COVID-19 get out of control, as it has in some other parts of the state and the country.

A Stanford University and Yale School of Medicine alum, she has more than 25 years of experience in Santa Clara County public health and infectious diseases. She earned a two-year fellowship in epidemiology and public health to work as an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She was hired by Santa Clara County's public health department in 1998 as the communicable disease controller/deputy health officer overseeing surveillance and investigation of 83 reportable diseases, according to a 2015 Yale School of Medicine profile announcing her appointment as county health officer. She has conducted investigations on outbreaks, participated in planning for public health emergencies, infectious diseases, and bioterrorism, and responded to SARS, H1N1 and other public health emergencies.

Cody has not taken the weight of her decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic for granted. When she and health officers from other counties held a press conference in March to announce shutting down schools, Cody appeared to fight back tears.

The decision was one she previously expressed great reluctance to make. She said she understood the effect the shutdown would exact.

"I know it will have a big impact on our community and our families," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at [email protected]


104 people like this
Posted by Jean
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 7, 2020 at 10:05 am

Jean is a registered user.

I am so grateful for Sara Cody's leadership during this pandemic. I fear Santa Clara County could easily have been raging out of control at this point without Dr. Cody at the helm. She studies the past, the present and the future as she guides us through these murky waters. Thank you, Dr. Cody.

70 people like this
Posted by Jon Castor
a resident of Woodside
on Aug 7, 2020 at 10:51 am

Jon Castor is a registered user.

I'm also very grateful for the work our health officers are doing. It's a tough job. Not always clear what's the right decision. What is clear: threats and intimidation have no place in the debate. None.

19 people like this
Posted by Neil Weintraut
a resident of Portola Valley
on Aug 7, 2020 at 10:52 am

Neil Weintraut is a registered user.

Until we are capable of treating and accepting each other with respect - i.e. treat each other *civilly* - including those who have different opinions or beliefs than our own, we are not the civilized world that we fancy ourselves to be. And we're all worse off for it. Regardless of other people's beliefs and opinions, each of us will find ourselves better for at least respecting the other person, but if you can't marshall the ability or control to do so, I hope that we'll at least get to the point where we don't threaten them for it.

51 people like this
Posted by MarkusF
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 7, 2020 at 11:12 am

MarkusF is a registered user.

Like many others, I'm grateful for Sara Cody's work. Paulette Altmaier is not speaking on behalf of Santa Clara residents. If something ever happened to Cody, Altmaier will have to share in the responsibility.

14 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 7, 2020 at 2:00 pm

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

How can we tap into the creative genius of Silicon Valley and let these leaders and their staff know that they are supported and appreciated? One idea is creation of a scholarship fund for public health students at our state's leading schools of public health. What else?

45 people like this
Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2020 at 3:23 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

Nobody should have to deal with death threats, especially medical professionals during a pandemic.

10 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2020 at 11:25 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

It’s a challenging time and we need intelligent public health officers. I think anyone who threatens or doxxes a public health official should face serious prosecution. It’s ok to disagree with people, but the above cross a line. Idiotic social media: Twitter, facebook, instagram, tiktok are ruining any shred of intelligence while encouraging rampant narcissism. Yuck. Social media influencers are typically idiotic (sometimes attractive) empty headed young people. I wish the public would “follow” (in the real world, not the vurtual world) actual, learned authorities like public health officials. My comments discuss the general state of things (inane, wasteful Kardashian-ilk social media) while also focusing on the distinct problem of the voices of actual, needed government officials being downplayed or even dismissed. What an era.

10 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 8, 2020 at 8:12 am

Palo Alto Resident is a registered user.

Was Dr. Sara Cody the leader in shutting down the Counties?

While Dr. Sara Cody was saying in early March "risk is low and schools will not shut down" it was actually Dr. Scott Morrow in San Mateo was the leader in not watering down the CDC message. There is a NYT article on him weeks before Dr. Sara Cody shut down Santa Clara county and while Dr. Sara Cody was asserting "risk is low" Dr. Scott Morrow was drumming the beat of warning weeks before Dr. Sara Cody did.

She in fact went from asserting "risk is low" first few weeks of March to suddenly flip flopping and saying "shut down now" on March 13th. That's why PAUSD teachers and parents and students got very little warning thanks to her "risk is low and schools won't shut down" statements in February and early March. Indeed, because it was so sudden in closure, it was very traumatic for PAUSD students and teachers.

Thanks for that Dr. Sara Cody.

Was Dr. Sara Cody the leader on shutting down the counties?

11 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 8, 2020 at 8:30 am

Palo Alto Resident is a registered user.

Dear Palo Alto online, you should do your research better. NYT article on Dr. Scott Morrow came out weeks before Santa Clara County even said we will shut down our schools. When Dr. Sara Cody was saying "risk is low and no need to shut down schools" as Health officer of Santa Clara County, it was Dr. Scott Morrow in San Mateo County that sounded the warning bell. San Mateo County was not even a hot spot, but Santa Clara County was.

Your statement below is wrong. Did she show foresight and leadership? I think she grabbed the spotlight and mic when the various counties came together and shut the counties down. Dr. Scott Morrow over in San Mateo County deserves more praise. And indeed NYT article came out on Dr. Scott Morrow not Dr. Sara Cody for a reason. She only shut down the county, when the other counties decided together to shut things down. Was she the leader? Highly doubtful. She wasn't the leader in sounding the warning bell, but was one of the folks watering CDC warnings down when Dr. Scott Morrow was not.

Article states: Cody is among the most prominent and visible faces in the fight against COVID-19. She led Bay Area health officers in what became the country's first stay-at-home order. Praised early on for her foresight and leadership, as the pandemic has worn on, she has faced at times scathing criticism for a notably cautious approach to reopening the economy.

20 people like this
Posted by Liz Phillips
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 8, 2020 at 1:53 pm

Liz Phillips is a registered user.

The people threatening these officials need to pursued and prosecuted. It has become a way of lawlessness that cannot be tolerated in a civil society.

12 people like this
Posted by Local
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 9, 2020 at 11:56 pm

Local is a registered user.

Thank you Sara Cody - a huge fan. I'm a family of six living here and we are all grateful you shut down fast. My kids know you are one of the good people.

4 people like this
Posted by Alice Schaffer Smith
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 20, 2020 at 9:12 am

Alice Schaffer Smith is a registered user.

When ghouls start threatening fact-based medical advisers, we have entered into Alice in Wonderland territory. I applaud Dr. Cody and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors for their sensible actions based on facts.

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