MONDAY, March 21, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- Harassment of U.S. public health officials and departments was rampant during the COVID-19 pandemic and led some officials to quit, researchers say.
Their analysis of survey responses from 583 local health departments nationwide found 57% of them reported nearly 1,500 incidents of harassment that targeted leadership or staff during the pandemic's first 11 months, March 2020 to January 2021.
"This is a wakeup call for the field about the need to prioritize the long-term protection of our public health workforce," said study author Beth Resnick, an assistant dean at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
"Taking care of the workforce needs to be a fundamental component of the public health infrastructure that doesn't end when the pandemic does," she said in a Hopkins news release.
Most often the harassment took place on social media, reported by nearly 300 health departments. Of those incidents, almost 200 specifically targeted local health department leaders.
During the study period, 222 local and state health officials left their jobs. More than a third (36%) were officials who had been subjected to some form of harassment.
An examination of media reports and other sources revealed that public health officials felt underappreciated, under-supported, villainized, caught up in politics and disillusioned during the pandemic.
The findings were published online March 17 in the American Journal of Public Health.
"No public health professional should feel undervalued, unsafe or be questioning the fundamental mission and purpose of their work," Resnick said. "We need to do better and prioritize worker well-being and safety by implementing policies that reduce undermining, ostracizing and intimidating behaviors to support these key workers and leaders."
The researchers suggested measures such as training public health officials on how to respond to political and societal conflict, providing employee support, investing in long-term public health staffing and infrastructure, and good reporting systems for harassment incidents.
There are more than 2,500 local and state public health departments across the United States.
There's more about online harassment at the Pew Research Center.
SOURCE: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, news release, March 17, 2022