Over 300 Public Health Leaders Have Left Jobs Amid COVID Pandemic

Republican lawmakers in almost half of U.S. states looking to pander to an anti-mask, anti-lockdown base are actively curbing the ability of the state and public health officials to deal with infectious diseases, the Associated Press reported.

According to an analysis from Kaiser Health News and AP, at least 303 public health officials have retired, resigned or been terminated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A KHN review of legislation found that across all 50 states, lawmakers have proposed bills to reduce public health powers since the beginning of the pandemic.

In other words, 1 in 5 Americans have lost a local health leader during the pandemic.

"This is a death blow," said Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which advocates for public health.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Dr. Amy Acton
According to an analysis from Kaiser Health News and AP, at least 303 public health officials have retired, resigned or been terminated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, including Dr. Amy Acton, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine's chief health adviser, after armed demonstrators protested outside her home. Above, a woman holds up a sign against Acton outside of the Ohio State House in Columbus on April 18, 2020. (Photo by MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

He called the legislative assault the last straw for many seasoned public health officials who have battled the pandemic without sufficient resources, while also being vilified

While some governors vetoed bills that passed, at least 26 states pushed through laws that permanently weaken government authority to protect public health. In three additional states, an executive order, ballot initiative or state Supreme Court ruling limited long-held public health powers. More bills are pending in a handful of states whose legislatures are still in session.

In Arkansas, legislators banned mask mandates except in private businesses or state-run health care settings, calling them "a burden on the public peace, health, and safety of the citizens of this state."

In Idaho, county commissioners, who typically have no public health expertise, can veto countywide public health orders.

In Kansas and Tennessee, school boards, rather than health officials, have the power to close schools.

President Joe Biden last week announced sweeping vaccination mandates and other COVID-19 measures, saying he was forced to act partly because of such legislation.

"My plan also takes on elected officials in states that are undermining you and these lifesaving actions," he said.

The KHN review showed that:

  • In at least 16 states, legislators have limited the power of public health officials to order mask mandates, or quarantines or isolation. In some cases, they gave themselves or local elected politicians the authority to prevent the spread of infectious disease.
  • At least 17 states passed laws banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates or passports or made it easier to get around vaccine requirements.
  • At least nine states have new laws banning or limiting mask mandates. Executive orders or a court ruling limit mask requirements in five more.

Much of this legislation takes effect as COVID-19 hospitalizations in some areas are climbing to the highest numbers at any point in the pandemic, and children are back in school.

"We really could see more people sick, hurt, hospitalized or even die, depending on the extremity of the legislation and curtailing of the authority," said Lori Tremmel Freeman, head of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Public health academics and officials are frustrated that they, instead of the virus, have become the enemy. They argue this will have consequences that last long beyond this pandemic, diminishing their ability to fight the latest COVID-19 surge and future disease outbreaks, such as being able to quarantine people during a measles outbreak.

"It's kind of like having your hands tied in the middle of a boxing match," said Kelley Vollmar, executive director of the Jefferson County Health Department in Missouri.

But proponents of the new limits say they are a necessary check on executive powers and give lawmakers a voice in prolonged emergencies. Arkansas state Senator Trent Garner, a Republican who co-sponsored his state's successful bill to ban mask mandates, said he was trying to reflect the will of the people.

"What the people of Arkansas want is the decision to be left in their hands, to them and their family," Garner said. "It's time to take the power away from the so-called experts, whose ideas have been woefully inadequate."

After initially signing the bill, Governor Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) expressed regret, calling a special legislative session in early August to ask lawmakers to carve out an exception for schools. Lawmakers declined. The law is currently blocked by an Arkansas judge who deemed it unconstitutional. Legal battles are ongoing in other states as well.

"Like turning off a light switch"

When the Indiana Legislature overrode the governor's veto to pass a bill that gave county commissioners the power to review public health orders, it was devastating for Dr. David Welsh, the public health officer in rural Ripley County.

People immediately stopped calling him to report COVID-19 violations, because they knew the county commissioners could overturn his authority. It was "like turning off a light switch," Welsh said.

Another county in Indiana has already seen its health department's mask mandate overridden by the local commissioners, Welsh said.

Public health groups expect further combative legislation. ALEC's Hauenschild said the group is looking into a Michigan law that allowed the legislature to limit the governor's emergency powers without Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer's signature.

Curbing the authority of public health officials has also become campaign fodder, particularly among Republican candidates running further on the right. While Republican Idaho Governor Brad Little was traveling out of state, Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin signed a surprise executive order banning mask mandates that she later promoted for her upcoming campaign against him. He later reversed the ban, tweeting: "I do not like petty politics. I do not like political stunts over the rule of law."

He's considering stepping down after more than a quarter-century in the role. If he does, he'll join at least one former lawmaker—former Oregon Democratic state Senator Wayne Fawbush—who said some of today's politicians may come to regret these laws.

Fawbush was a sponsor of 1989 legislation during the AIDS crisis. It banned employers from requiring health care workers, as a condition of employment, to get an HIV vaccine, if one became available.

But 32 years later, that means Oregon cannot require health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Calling lawmaking a "messy business," Fawbush said he certainly would not have pushed the bill through if he had known then what he does now.

"Legislators need to obviously deal with immediate situations," Fawbush said. "But we have to look over the horizon. It's part of the job responsibility to look at consequences."

Health Officials Resign COVID
According to an analysis from Kaiser Health News and AP, at least 303 public health officials have retired, resigned or been terminated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, including New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who resigned. Above, Barbot speaks during a news conference on the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York state on March 2, 2020, in New York City. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)