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County Health Officials Quitting Amid Threats, Harassment

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Health department directors from across Missouri are walking away from their jobs after many of them were threatened and harassed over the actions they have taken to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Friday reported that at least a dozen county health department directors have vacated their jobs since March.

“It’s a common feeling among directors,” said Kelley Vollmar, chair of the Missouri Association of Local Public Health Agencies. “They are tired. They are trying to stand strong, and stand up for their staff, but we are mothers and children and sisters first, and those family relationships you have to make sure are kept safe. It has been challenging.”

Vollmar, who also is director of the Jefferson County Health Department, said staff members also are retiring early because of the stress and verbal attacks. Those jobs are now difficult to fill, she said.

The state has reported 5,568 new confirmed cases over the past two days — a record 3,061 on Thursday and 2,507 on Friday. The death toll statewide now stands at 2,925. Hospitalizations on Thursday set a record at 1,612, and hospital leaders across the state have warned that facilities are nearing capacity.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson allowed the state to reopen in mid-June, without a statewide mask mandate or social distancing requirement. But several local jurisdictions, often at the urging of their county health departments, have imposed their own stricter guidelines.

Amber Elliott resigned last week as St. Francois County’s health director, effective Nov. 20. She was in the job for less than a year.

Elliott said she was surprised by the personal attacks she and her family have faced as she has worked to protect her community. People have told her they’re watching her. Pictures of Elliott, her husband and her grade-school-age children have been posted online with cruel remarks.

“There’s been many over the course of eight months, to personal attacks on Facebook calling me every name in the book, to calling me and cussing me and saying I’m stupid and I’m incompetent and I don’t know what I’m doing, of course the pandemic is fake, and all those type of things,” Elliott said.

“As a mom of two small children, my husband and I have to always remember that they come first, and it’s unfortunate that my job serving the public has affected them so profoundly,” she said.

Over the past two months, health directors in Howard, Washington, Ste. Genevieve and Audrain counties also have stepped down, the Post-Dispatch reported.

Vollmer said she, too, has faced harassment. A gun shop owner on Facebook wrote that gun owners will “decide they’ve had enough of the lies.” People posted pictures of her on social media, altered to make her look like Adolf Hitler or comparing the health department to Nazis.

“It’s just demoralizing after a while because of the simple fact that you are trying to do the right thing,” Vollmar said. “You’re trying to help people and at the same time, you are trying to protect your family and protect your personal life.”

In August, a review by Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press found at least 49 state and local health leaders had resigned, retired or been fired since April across 23 states. They have left their posts due to a mix of backlash and stressful working conditions.

The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.