Joni Reynolds, the head of Gunnison County’s public health department, entered kind of a routine as the coronavirus crisis descended on Colorado earlier this year: Long hours. Sleepless nights. A police escort home.
A wave of threats over her efforts to keep her community safe amid the pandemic made her fear for her safety. There were also suspicious packages left outside her house and sent to her office, both of which were unsettling but weren’t dangerous.
“References to Nazism. Calling me Mrs. Hitler,” Reynolds said, recounting the contents of the hate mail she received. “Calling me vile names — curse words. Threatening harm to me, my family, my home. Assuring they would remove me from my job and take ‘all my worldly possessions.’”
Public health officials in every corner of Colorado have become the target of threats, vandalism and even attack ads in newspapers and on the radio as a result of their handling of the pandemic.
They are unelected government workers who typically do important, but seldom acknowledged, work preventing disease outbreaks and inspecting restaurants. But during the coronavirus crisis, the harsh spotlight of a politicized pandemic has shined upon them.
Some have faced blowback from their bosses — often county commissioners — and have been forced out of their jobs. Others have resigned because the stress and pressure just aren’t worth it.
“It just adds additional stress and strain on a workforce that has been responding even before the very first case was registered in the state of Colorado and the first death was registered in the state of Colorado,” said Theresa Anselmo, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health officials, which represents the state’s local public health departments. “They’ve been working nonstop, essentially, since the beginning of February, some of them earlier.”
With no end to the pandemic in sight, officials worry whether Colorado’s network of local public health departments can tamp down the vitriol while trying to keep on top of the worst pandemic the world has experienced in 100 years. At some point, they fear, the combined pressure could become too heavy.
“We’re in this for the next 12 to 24 months. Even with a vaccine, this isn’t going to go away in Colorado,” Anselmo said. “So public health will be on the front lines of this for months, if not years, to come.”
Anselmo even has a folder in her email inbox dedicated to all of the threats her members have received: twice-vandalized cars, a photograph with comments about “bodies swinging from trees,” the arrest of a man who said health officials “deserve to pay.”
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