— Over half of local health departments experienced harassment during first year of the COVID-19 pandemic —
Washington, DC, March 18, 2022—The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), representing the country’s nearly 3,000 local health departments, supported a recent Johns Hopkins University (JHU) study, entitled, “Pandemic-related workplace violence and its impact on public health officials, March 2020–January 2021,” assessing the experiences and impacts of harassment against local health department leaders in response to pandemic-related public health decisions. The study used data from NACCHO’s 2020 Forces of Change survey.
Forces of Change is a national survey of local health departments that helps to identify infrastructure gaps, as well as strategies for strengthening local health department capacity, as the public health environment evolves. The survey identified nearly 1,500 reports of harassment, representing 57% of responding departments. In-depth interviews conducted as a part of this study found that experiences of harassment include structural and political undermining of their professional duties, marginalization of their expertise, social villainization, and disillusionment.
The study highlights that “in discussing the trajectory of the public health response, leaders both eschewed politics and recognized it as essential to their infrastructure needs and policy interventions. Political threats and job insecurities were not explicitly included in the 10 categories of harassment used to analyze survey responses and media content. However, 4.6% of [local health department] survey respondents reported experiencing leadership turnover due to political pressure or conflict.” In addition, the study found that “public health officials found it a ‘tough balance’ to strike when political messaging and priorities were not in alignment with public health priorities. For the public health official, the consequence was often confusion or a sense of futility.”
Despite experiences of workplace violence, the study found that many public health leaders remain in their positions within health departments. As a result of this study, NACCHO again calls upon federal authorities to address the increased risk in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against public health officials associated with the pandemic. In addition, we support the study’s recommendations that leaders be trained to respond to political conflict, an examination be conducted of what trauma-informed workforce protections are needed, and investments in long-term public health staffing and infrastructure be prioritized.
About the Forces of Change Survey
Since 2008, NACCHO has periodically surveyed local health departments to assess the impact of the economic recession. NACCHO expanded this Forces of Change survey to address more generally the forces that affect change in local health departments—most recently, the impacts of COVID-19 on local public health infrastructure and practice.
The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) represents the nation’s nearly 3,000 local health departments. These city, county, metropolitan, district, and tribal departments work every day to protect and promote health and well-being for all people in their communities. For more information about NACCHO, please visit www.naccho.org.