Someone, or a group of someones, recently went to the home of Contra Costa County Public Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano and wrote on the sidewalk outside, "My body my choice" and, "Tyranny is not the answer," and speaking to the neighborhood, "Your neighbor thinks he has the power." It's just the latest incident in a pattern of threatening behavior against health officers, who see the current activist by ignorant, pseudo-libertarian, anti-science activists as echos of the equally ignorant anti-vaxx movement.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, these fringe folk — whose messages and threats are scarily similar to those of the violent Boogaloo movement, to which accused Santa Cruz and Oakland shooter Steven Carrillo subscribed — posted live videos of their actions at Farnitano's home on Sunday and again on Tuesday. And anti-mask protesters claim that they're gaining traction for their cause online, calling for others to show up at the homes of county health officers.
Protestors showed up at the home of Contra Costa County Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano (upset over mask policies and contact tracers) today, when the cops came to check it out I’m pretty sure they offered the protestors the wine list after going over daily specials. pic.twitter.com/sSZOc72ZON— InMinivanHell (@inminivanhell) June 15, 2020
Dr. Nichole Quick, the health officer in Orange County, received threats from residents angry about the mandatory mask order she had put in place and other lockdown rules. She was also doxxed during a public meeting — a protester announced her home address, after which she left the conference call, as the LA Times reported.
Quick resigned from her post and her replacement, under pressure from the county board of supervisors, rescinded the mandatory mask order, making it simply "recommended."
Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday took some of the onus off of county officials by issuing a statewide order making masks and face coverings mandatory in public. But that isn't likely to stop the most motivated and angry of the internet-drunk mob from continuing to harass county health officers, who have become the central mouthpieces of orders that caused much of the state's economy to grind to a halt over the last three months.
Dr. Sara Cody, the health officer in Santa Clara County, has also been receiving undisclosed threats, which the county sheriff is now investigating. As the Mercury News reported, her staff issued a statement on Wednesday saying that Cody "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."
Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, tells the LA Times that these acts of intimidation are likely to drive medical professionals out of these public-service roles.
Noting the resignation of Dr. Quick, she tells the paper, "I would not be surprised if there were more. They are working 80 hours a week during the pandemic and then you have threatening public comments. I’m worried about the long-term health consequences in California by losing our most experienced public health professionals."
And DeBurgh acknowledges that the pandemic has put health officers in a uniquely bright and awkward spotlight. "This isn’t a position that typically gets much attention,” DeBurgh says, speaking to the LAT. "They can issue orders to prevent the spread of a communicable disease, but they usually do this in the background, such as with tuberculosis."
A piece published in late April by Kaiser Health News, discussed how the combined efforts of health officers in the Bay Area were instrumental in stemming the tide of the pandemic at a critical moment in March — and it's upsetting to think that that moment might be squandered still as public anxiety wanes and as people lose interest in toeing the line of public health mandates.
The Association of Bay Area Health Officials, a coalition of 13 health officers spanning the nine-county Bay Area and including Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito counties as well (along with the independent health department of the City of Berkeley), was formed in 1985 to address the growing AIDS crisis. Health officers recognized at the time that they needed to act in tandem, and the resulting regional cooperation was something that greatly benefited the Bay Area as COVID-19 pandemic began. The health officers all knew each other and communicated regularly already, and it was not hard to reach a consensus about what should be done. (Dr. Cody is credited with leading the charge to issue the first stay-at-home order on March 17.)
"We spent a couple years as a region thinking about pandemic planning, and that really helped us come a long way thinking about these policies for COVID-19," said Alameda County health officer Dr. Erica Pan in the Kaiser piece, referring to the ways the counties had already been planning for influenza scares.
Dr. Gail Newel, Santa Cruz County’s health officer and an OB-GYN by trade, said in the piece that she is not an infectious disease expert, so she was grateful to have the guidance from the Bay Area coalition. "It’s this incredible bank of knowledge and wisdom and experience that’s freely shared among the members," she says. "And the whole Bay Area benefits by that shared knowledge bank."
Photo: Michael Swan/Wikimedia