Johns Hopkins Study: Health Officer Harassment Impedes Public Health

Findings from the “The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Civic Life and Public Health Survey” suggest faith in public health officials and institutions is eroding, undermining ongoing COVID-19 response efforts.

The survey results, released on July 29, noted a significant percentage of 1,086 adult respondents, 21%, believed that threatening public health officials for business closures to slow COVID-19 transmission was justified. Said responses were taken in July and August of 2021. They represent a significant spike from the 15% of respondents who felt similarly in November of 2020. The percentage of respondents who believed harassment might be justified saw a similar spike during this period, from 20% in 2020 to 25% in 2021.

Overall, respondents who felt harassment was justified were younger (between 18 and 34 years old), had attained a high school diploma or less, and were less trusting of science. As the pandemic progressed, the study observed “significant increases in the share of those with higher income and more education who believed that threatening public health officials was justified.”

The study offered the following conclusion:

Our results indicate that the factors associated with support for attacks on public health officials include conventional partisan and sociodemographic explanations, but that antagonism may be increasing even among those supportive of science and those better equipped to weather the pandemic’s adverse economic impacts. Ensuring the safety and sustainability of the public health workforce will necessitate finding new and tailored strategies to build trust with these groups.

In its analysis, the study also examined the effect of threats and harassment on public health workers, stating that they have “exacerbated the pressures of the pandemic and [are] likely contributing to increases in stress levels, depression, and anxiety.” In Maryland, health officers have regularly encountered threats and harassment since the onset of the pandemic. MACo made the protection of health officers, along with other public-facing county officials, one of its four legislative initiatives for 2022.

During the Maryland General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session, MACo offered strong support for House Bill 267, which would have protected workers in both hospitals and local health departments, and Senate Bill 956, which would have extended existing public official protections against threats and harassment to health officers. Although neither bill passed, the Johns Hopkins survey and study suggest additional action may be needed.

Read the full Johns Hopkins study.