“Your tank is empty”: Local health authorities fight burnout, low wages and harassment

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WASHINGTON – Eighteen months after the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local health officials who were already struggling with too few workers and too little money have been marginalized – and for some, over the edge.

“My employees are burned out, overworked and underpaid,” said Dr. Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner for the Columbus Public Health Department in Ohio, told members of the US House of Representatives on Wednesday. “Some leave the field entirely and can no longer contribute to the work they once loved.”

“Simply put,” added Roberts, “your tank is empty.”

She and other Kansas and Louisiana public health officials painted a dire picture before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis during a hearing on the challenges facing public health officials.

While some of these issues have worsened during the pandemic, such as harassment and vitriol from those who refuse to believe the science behind vaccines, other issues, such as lack of resources, have been on the rise for decades.

Roberts described how an emergency preparedness unit that once had 20 employees was reduced to five at the time of the pandemic. Staff from across the health department, some of whom have little to do with infectious disease responses, have been called to battle on deck.

The result? Staff fatigue and early retirement while those who stay on the job face harassment and challenges from public health authority.

Anger over mask requirement

Officials from across the country shared similar stories.

Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a health officer for the Wilson County Health Department in Kansas, said a local sheriff volunteered to escort her to her car after a public session on wearing wearing masks because he was concerned about the angry residents who were at spoke at the meeting.

McKenney, who still works for the rural health department, said she was later told that her job was being opened up for applications because she was “too focused on health and science and not enough on business.”

“Many of my colleagues have seen worse harassment from the public and elected officials than I have, but some were unable to speak out for fear of retaliation,” McKenney told the committee.

According to Dr. Beth Resnick, assistant dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, has left more than 300 state and local health officials. That means one in five Americans loses a public health officer in their community.

McKinney attributed the decisions of many of these workers to the stresses caused by the hostilities that their colleagues and others around the country have endured since the pandemic began.

“That’s because they endure things every day, like people lying to them about their close relationships or when their symptoms started,” she said. “It’s really the personal impact of the way they put all their hearts into everything they do to help people, only to get others to lie or scream again, or attack them in public or to shame just because they are trying to do their job. “

Resnick said she and her colleagues had identified at least 1,500 incidents of public health workers being assaulted or molested since the pandemic began. Half of the local health authorities surveyed reported at least one incident of assault or harassment, from protests to death threats to shooting at their homes.

She called on members of Congress to establish a national reporting system for incidents of violence and harassment against public health workers and to urge the Federal Department of Justice to assist prosecutors and local prosecutors in enforcing existing laws.

Consistent financing

Local health officials also called for more consistent, long-term funding for their agencies.

They expressed frustration at grants, which may only last a year or two, and which at that point are closely tailored to specific illnesses or health challenges.

This funding system makes it too difficult to keep talent in agencies that should be well prepared to respond to a variety of threats, they said.

“You can never build for the future if your funding is limited to the priorities of yesterday’s funds,” said Dr. Joseph Kanter, state health officer and medical director for the Louisiana Department of Health.

To illustrate the extent of what health officials still need to contain, Kanter noted that Hurricane Ida caused 30 deaths in Louisiana. Since that storm hit land, its state has counted 1,541 COVID-19-related deaths.

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