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Across The Northwest And Nation, A 'Steady And Alarming' Loss Of Health Officials As COVID Surges

Community members in the Spokane area demonstrated in favor of county health officer Dr. Bob Lutz after he was forced out and later fired by the county board of health.

Lauri Jones has been working in public health in Washington’s Okanogan County for 17 years.

But after repeated threats to her safety, she recently got a new security system for her home.

“I still find myself sometimes looking over my shoulder,” Jones says. “Especially if I walk out of the building and it’s getting obviously dark earlier.”

She’s not leaving her post as the community health director. But her colleague Dr. John McCarthy is in December. He says the workload has become too heavy.

“I know that my colleague (Lauri Jones) was threatened multiple times, and in social media, and in very inappropriate ways,” McCarthy says. “We don’t have to be happy that there’s a pandemic going on, but to blame individuals is not going to be helpful.”

"Steady and alarming"
Earlier this year, anti-mask demonstrators protested outside the home of Spokane County health officer Dr. Bob Lutz. He was recently fired by the county board of health, sparking a backlash and calls for the state health board to investigate. (Lutz didn’t respond to multiple interview requests for this story.) In the Benton and Franklin County region, a petition is circulating to remove a health official in the Tri-Cities. In Yakima County, the health director recently resigned. And in Whitman County, home to Washington State University in Pullman, the health director just departed for a job overseas. At the state level, Washington Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy announced she will resign her position.

Credit Courtesy of the University of Washington
Dr. John McCarthy is leaving his role as health officer for Okanogan County, Washington.

Lori Freeman calls the loss of top public health officers across the country “steady and alarming.” Freeman heads the National Association of County and City Health Officials. More than 70 have been fired, left or plan to leave their posts since the pandemic began in the U.S. In fact, so many are leaving, she’s keeping a spreadsheet.

“Some of our public health officials have been physically threatened, politically scapegoated,” Freeman says. “Their roles have been diminished, their authorities have been in some cases taken away.”

This is happening while Freeman was already anticipating an exodus due to Baby Boomer retirements in the next few years. That was before the pandemic. Freeman says that since February, the outsized workload has made things worse. And Freeman says fresh energy is needed on the public health front.

“We have to get through the vaccination stage where we are actively deploying and vaccinating the country,” Freeman says.

Little federal aid
More staff, more supplies, more organization nationally could help with the pandemic, health workers say.

Freeman says the outsized workload hasn’t let up since February. And for years before COVID-19 , health officials say they’d been underfunded, with staff cut to the minimum.

It’s been months since Congress passed the one and only COVID-19 relief act, called the CARES Act, signed into law in March.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington says the U.S. House of Representatives tried to fund more relief in May. But, Murray says, “(Senate) Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not bring it up.”

Murray says she’s deeply concerned about the attrition of top doctors, nurses, and public health officials across the country. She says President Donald Trump has politicized the pandemic.

“He’s refused to listen to the science,” she says. “He’s refused to listen to the expertise of public health officials who are on the ground making decisions about how to address the virus and keep their communities safe. It’s an enormous emotional toll when they are not believed for the profession that they are trained in.”

Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici calls it “beyond frustrating.”

She says the HEROES Act that the U.S. House has passed is just waiting for the Senate to take action. The legislation would provide more than $1 trillion of aid to state, local governments and tribes to respond to the pandemic.

“It’s so short sighted that public health has been underfunded,” she says. 

Credit TVW/Screenshot
Washington State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy has been front-and-center in the state's pandemic response and regular news media briefings. She is leaving her job soon.

Plus, Bonamici says, COVID-19 doesn’t know boundaries: cities, farms, Democrats, Republicans. She says with COVID-19 case rates moving upward, at particular risk are smaller communities with limited health care systems.

“Health care workers in those communities … are seeing people they know [get sick],” Bonamici says. “If we don’t turn this around, they are going to go to the hospital and the hospital is going to be full.”

Unrelenting attacks

Karen Koenemann has a few waning weeks left at her post on Colorado’s Western Slope. She’s the public health director for Pitkin County, and she didn’t really know she was burnt out until the nasty emails started coming. Early in the pandemic, a press release went out from her office with a quote from her.

“It was something like, ‘I really hope we don’t see an increase in cases in our community,’ or something like that,” Koenemann says.

Despite the fairly mundane quote, she received a stinging email. A community member accused her of not understanding the pandemic.

“[They] said ‘You are a derelict of duty by even saying that, you should be fired,’” she recalls.
Another woman health director in Colorado was called out by aggressive radio ads taken out by a group called “Colorado Counties for Freedom.” The ads called for her authority to be stripped. The public health director’s car was also vandalized.

Koenemann, on Colorado’s Western Slope, says she’s tired of the attacks and tired of getting little help from community leaders.

“I felt alone, and so I just started to cry in the meeting,” she says. “That was sort of how [my burnout] came out. You know, I would be crying in a meeting with the sheriff and the county manager.”

Konenemann resigned her position as public health director. She plans to move to Alaska.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.