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Public Health Officials Discuss Why They Quit During The COVID-19 Pandemic


New York City's health commissioner's resignation this week is the most high profile of many similar departures across the country. Since April, at least 24 public health officials have left their jobs because of pandemic related disagreements with elected officials or because of backlash from the public. Nate Hegyi with the Mountain West News Bureau reports.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: For Dr. Lori Drumm, it all began with a rodeo.

LORI DRUMM: The rodeo attracts many, many people from all over the state.

HEGYI: As the part-time public health officer in Deer Lodge, Mont., Drumm said big, public gatherings are a bad idea now.

DRUMM: There would be no way to enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks.

HEGYI: So she canceled it. And when word got out, around 30 people showed up at Drumm's other part-time workplace, the hospital, where she's also a family physician.

DRUMM: Some of the people were waving the Constitution.

HEGYI: Drumm says a small but vocal group of locals had been grumbling and calling her names online over her response to COVID-19 for months. But when they showed up at the hospital, it was the last straw for her.

DRUMM: Basically, an angry group came to my place of employment. And I can't control that from happening. But I can control the reason they want to come here, to see me. So I had to - I felt like I had to resign so that wouldn't happen again. I was concerned about the safety for the hospital.

HEGYI: Drumm's resignation follows a wave of others who recently left their posts in Colorado, California, Texas, Ohio and other states. Some left because of threats. Others, like Carole Calderwood, are quitting because of pushback from local politicians. She worked as the public health officer in Ravalli County, Mont., for 13 years. But recently, elected leaders said they wouldn't enforce the governor's statewide mask mandate.

CAROLE CALDERWOOD: I was surprised. And I felt that my authority was somewhat undermined.

HEGYI: The commissioners later walked back the statement after taking heat from some local residents. They clarified that they wanted people to wear masks, but they weren't going to force them to do it. Calderwood says they also reached out to her and explained it was a miscommunication. But the damage was done. She's quitting as soon as the county finds a replacement for her.

CALDERWOOD: I felt really blindsided by this decision and that somehow we're just not operating as an effective team.

HEGYI: Calderwood has also been dealing with what she calls veiled threats coming into the health department. Nurse Tiffany Webber often fielded those.

TIFFANY WEBBER: It's enough to kind of just make you step back and take a different view of what's happening around you. And you're just shocked.

HEGYI: There is a long history of the American public not liking government response to new health threats. Graham Mooney is a public health historian at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

GRAHAM MOONEY: Certainly, there have been public protests and demonstrations against public health regulations in the past.

HEGYI: In Milwaukee in 1894, an angry mob of thousands there threatened public health officials with knives and clubs during a smallpox outbreak. Many didn't want their children taken to hospitals and didn't believe the infection needed medical attention.

MOONEY: The demonstrations were so vociferous and the complaints so loud that the public health doctor, yeah, he was eventually kicked out.

HEGYI: Mooney says Americans were almost constantly airing grievances against public health officials in the late 19th century over everything from mandatory vaccinations, new health guidelines, to fighting epidemics. But as what was then called the sanitation movement proved effective at reining in disease outbreaks in the early decades of the 20th century, Mooney says public health officials receded into the background. Now, though, Dr. Lori Drumm, who quit her public health job in Montana, says she worries about the future.

DRUMM: I'm a little fearful for our country if we don't slow down, calm down and just remember to love one another.

HEGYI: And that love, she says, is becoming harder to find.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT JORGENSEN'S "PRIMAL SCRIP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nate Hegyi