By Jacqueline Howard, CNN
Travis McAdam scours local newspapers and extremist social media content, along with receiving personal reports from community members about the threats.
McAdam, an expert on extremism and white nationalism at the Montana Human Rights Network, has been monitoring threats of violence targeted toward public health officers in Montana, and sometimes northern Idaho.
Throughout the pandemic, such threats have become a nationwide issue in the United States.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has spoken openly about receiving death threats. Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public health director, also has opened up about receiving hate mail and threats dating back to March last year. In Washington state, Okanogan County community health director Lauri Jones has said that she installed a new security system and asked for police patrols around her home following repeated online threats.
Researchers have also found that some of the threats targeting public health officers come from people with known ties to far-right extremist groups.
Now, there’s renewed worry that such harassment may increase nationwide with upcoming efforts to vaccinate young children against Covid-19.
“There’s the potential that that could end up being one of these flash points where threats and harassment spike again,” McAdam told CNN. “Every time during the pandemic when there’s a new development, it brings the potential for that harassment to increase.”
‘I can only imagine this will increase’
The US Food and Drug Administration is now considering authorizing the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. With sign off by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shots could be administered by next week.
Pending that authorization, public health officers plan to help get shots into those young arms — but their efforts could come with more threats and harassment from the small minority of Americans who are anti-vaccine or Covid-19 skeptics.
“Unfortunately, I anticipate that this will be the case,” Brooke Torton, a senior staff attorney at the Network for Public Health Law, wrote in an email to CNN. “I can only imagine this will increase once younger children begin getting vaccinated.”
Public health officials continue to face threats for simply administering the vaccine due to widespread misinformation, Torton noted, and the idea of vaccine requirements has the potential to cause outrage among some parents.
Certain managers of vaccination programs already have experienced intimidating posts online during the pandemic, Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, told CNN.
The association even discussed plans with some of its members to organize giving awards to doctors and community leaders for being “champions” of vaccines — but some members voiced concern that such an award might invite threats and harassment against those being honored, Hannan said.
“Those who are speaking out against vaccines and doing that type of harassment are still in the very small minority, and I think it will stay that way,” she said. “But anytime there’s a new initiative, or in this case, a new vaccine coming for kids, then it’s something that we’d have to consider that there’s going to be that backlash from the anti-vaccine side.”
‘The very professionals that are trying to protect us, are unfairly being targeted’
Even though public health officers have feared for their safety throughout the pandemic, harassment seems to ramp up whenever new Covid-19 mitigation efforts or policies are introduced, Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, told CNN.
“At this point, things are so divisive politically that I think any new initiative associated with this disease — any new effort to mitigate, whether it’s vaccine or further masking in schools, et cetera — is going to be hyper politicized,” Freeman said.
“It just seems like the environment that we’re in right now is ripe for people to really express their politics through ignoring health advice, which is just unfortunate,” Freeman added. “The very professionals that are trying to protect us, are unfairly being targeted, and that is a threat really to all of us.”
Last week, NACCHO sent a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland, requesting “you include the protection of public health department officials and staff in your directive to federal authorities to meet with local, state, Tribal, and territorial law enforcement to address the increased risk in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school-related personnel,” says the letter, signed by Freeman.
Freeman has not received a response yet from Garland’s office — but she said that she wrote the letter because, “we don’t want to wait until a tragedy occurs to raise this to the highest levels that we can.”
The letter noted that some health officials have had to start driving unmarked cars or installing at-home security cameras, others have had to rely on police escorts and round-the-clock security, while others worried their children would be targeted.
“These threats have taken a toll: at least 300 public health department leaders have left their posts since the pandemic began, impacting 20% of Americans. In many cases, they have been verbally abused and physically threatened,” according to the letter. “Of note, many of these threats have included misogynistic and racist undertones, further violating these officials.”
Torton, the senior public health attorney, wrote in her email to CNN that the discussions she has had with public health officials nationwide “certainly reveal a pattern of abuse aimed at public health officials who are also women, and racial, sexual, and gender minorities,” and “it seems they have been more likely to be targeted.”
Torton was not involved in NACCHO’s letter to the Attorney General.
The growing danger of vocal extremists
There is emerging evidence that members of extremist groups could be behind some of the harassment aimed at public health officers, according to the civil rights nonprofit group Southern Poverty Law Center.
“In tracking political violence in recent months and the anti-government militia movement for decades, we find this trend of increased threats and intimidation directed at local public health officials, as well as other local officials, very concerning,” Rachel Carroll Rivas, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in an email to CNN.
“Our research indicated that some of the threats have come from individuals with known affiliation with far-right organizations that have been advocating and participating in violence.”
McAdam in Montana told CNN that he has seen similar trends in his own research.
In Montana specifically, McAdam also has noticed that members of anti-government militia groups have started to partner with the people protesting and harassing public health officers.
For some extremist organizations, the same people angry about Covid-19 mitigation measures and threatening public health officers are ripe for recruitment, McAdam said.
“Remember the anti-lockdown rallies that were happening in state capitols or outside county courthouses or other public buildings? It wasn’t necessarily that the anti-government crowds and the militia crowds were the ones organizing all of those — but they were showing up in those spaces,” McAdam said.
“For them, they were prime recruiting grounds, because you have generally conservative-leaning people who are really angry at the government right now,” he said. “They started to tap into some of that anger.”
Carroll Rivas noted in her email that attacks and harassment against local public health officers provide extremist organizations with an opportunity to “channel their anti-government talking points” into the mainstream.
“Covid-19 conspiracies and disinformation organizing includes a mix of extreme far-right actors and organizations, as well as mainstream politicians and everyday folks. The recruitment pool is unfortunately big,” she wrote. “Focusing attacks at the local level is a bread-and-butter tactic of the anti-government militia movement and far-right.”
Push to support public health
Passing and enforcing effective laws with stringent penalties for people who threaten and harass public health officials, launching public health educational campaigns and investing more in public health all could help curb the frequent harassment, Torton, the senior public health attorney, wrote in her email to CNN
“Public health needs its image bolstered,” Torton said. “It’s been damaged and politicized during this pandemic.”
To combat the growing danger of extremist recruitment and threats to public health officers’ safety, McAdam said that community members who support public health need to be more vocal in their backing of science and denounce the hate.
“What’s happening in many of these public meeting spaces is you have these extremists and bullies who are dominating those spaces where these topics are being discussed and decisions are being made,” McAdam said.
“Right now, it just feels kind of like there’s a vacuum in some communities where it’s really only those bullies who are being heard,” he said. “The rest of us — the majority of us that want to take the pandemic seriously and want to take these steps — we need to make sure that our voices are being heard as well.”
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