Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
It is disturbing how many people in Minnesota and elsewhere need to hear this:
Harassing or threatening public health officials is not OK.
It is fine to disagree with decisions on COVID-19 or other issues. But that is not license to abuse or harm these public servants.
Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic triggered a parallel contagion of deplorable conduct, with those on the pandemic's front lines receiving frightening e-mails, phone calls, social media comments and more. An alarming new investigation suggests the problem may be deepening.
The research appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) network of publications on July 29. The scientific team behind it surveyed 1,086 American adults in late 2020 and then again in the summer 2021. The key question asked: Is it justifiable to harass or threaten public health officials after business closures done to slow COVID's spread?
The initial November 2020 findings are worrisome. Twenty percent of those surveyed said harassment was justifiable. A shockingly high percentage went a step further, with 15% saying that threats were justifiable.
But the passage of time may have made things worse, not better, as the follow-up survey in July and August of 2021 showed. Those who believed harassment was justified rose from 20% to 25%. Those who believed threats were appropriate rose from 15% to 21%.
The survey also found a troubling shift in attitudes toward public health officials over this same time period. "While antagonism toward public health officials was concentrated among those doubting science and groups most negatively affected by the pandemic (e.g., those with lower income and less education), the findings of this study suggest that there has been a shift toward such beliefs within more economically advantaged subgroups and those more trusting of science."
Like any study, this one is fair game for criticism. We wish the authors would have provided more clarity on the definitions of "harassment" and "threats" in the survey's questioning and in the subsequent analysis of results. The lead author, who is affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, did not respond to an editorial writer's query about this.
More significantly, a year has passed since respondents were last queried. It's possible that with infection control measures easing thanks to vaccines and treatments, fewer people may now justify harassment or threats.
Nevertheless, the JAMA Network article offers a troubling window into what public health staffers in Minnesota and elsewhere have endured for two-plus years in trying to do their jobs during the pandemic.
In an interview this week, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the study is tough to read. "I'll just be really honest with you, I'm having a little PTSD," she said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's just bringing back so many difficult things we've been through in the last couple of years personally, for my staff at MDH, for our local public health colleagues. When I think about the damage that's been done, it just makes my blood boil."
Minnesotans ought to share Malcolm's outrage. Public health staff shoulder a daunting responsibility — preventing disease and injury. Their duties are difficult and important, including everything from stopping drug overdoses to preventing foodborne illness to improving newborns' health.
Attracting and keeping talented public health staff was a challenge even before the pandemic, the report also noted. The abuse inflicted on the staffers will only exacerbate this.
The JAMA report's authors timidly conclude that "new and tailored strategies" are needed to rebuild trust in public health officials. While measures like this would be helpful, it's not the key ingredient for improvement.
Individual responsibility is. Keep it civil or keep it to yourself. Harassing or threatening public health workers — or anyone else for that matter — is wrong. It is a national disgrace that this has to be said.