Anti-vaccine activists, mask opponents target public health officials — at their homes
People protesting mask orders aimed at stemming the COVID-19 pandemic recently arrived outside the home of Contra Costa County’s public health officer. On the sidewalk, they drew an arrow pointed at his residence.
“Your neighbor thinks he has the power,” a protester wrote in chalk, referring to health officer Chris Farnitano.
“Tyranny is not the answer,” wrote another.
“My body, my choice,” was scribbled in yellow chalk — a battle cry of the abortion rights movement that more recently was adopted by those against another California public health measure — a law strengthening school vaccination requirements.
For months, anti-vaccine activists have joined protests against coronavirus restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of infection. Now this unusual alliance is taking direct aim at the county officials issuing these orders.
On Sunday and then Tuesday, they livestreamed protests against Farnitano, which came days after Orange County’s chief health officer resigned amid intense pushback against her countywide mask order and threats against her that prompted a security detail.
Online, mask protesters say their calls for similar rallies outside the homes of public health officers are gaining traction. For many, it’s raising alarms. Calling the protests an act of intimidation, Kat DeBurgh of the Health Officers Assn. of California said she’s worried. Seven local health officials have announced they are leaving their posts, some of which were previously planned retirements, DeBurgh said.
“I would not be surprised if there were more,” she said. “They are working 80 hours a week during the pandemic and then you have threatening public comments. I’m worried about the long-term health consequences in California by losing our most experienced public health professionals.”
On Wednesday, Santa Clara County revealed that Public Health Officer Sara Cody had been threatened, although it provided few details.
“We are aware of the threats made, and it is currently under investigation,” Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Low said in an email.
Each of California’s counties is required to have an appointed public health officer who is a physician. The county’s elected governing board appoints the health officer, a 75-year-old structure that is intended to insulate the position from political pressure while providing public accountability, DeBurgh said.
“This isn’t a position that typically gets much attention,” DeBurgh said. “They can issue orders to prevent the spread of a communicable disease, but they usually do this in the background, such as with tuberculosis.”
However, with the worldwide spread of COVID-19, local health officers were thrust into the spotlight as they released measures they said would best keep their counties safe.
Recent personal attacks against health officers include disclosing personal details — whom they date, where they live — along with doctored photos depicting them with Hitler-esque mustaches. For proponents of last year’s law to increase state oversight of vaccine medical exemptions, it all feels too familiar.
“These are the same tactics that were used against vaccines,” said state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a doctor who authored the vaccine law. “It’s absolutely meant as intimidation.”
It’s long been established science that vaccines help prevent measles and other diseases and were instrumental in eliminating plagues such as smallpox. They could be the only way to end the current pandemic, once a vaccine is successfully developed, tested and distributed. But vaccine opponents reject vaccine science, sometimes pointing to discredited studies and conspiracy theories.
Pan has been a regular target of anti-vaccine protesters’ anger, with opponents likening him to Hitler and calling him a tyrant. The escalating rhetoric and tactics against public health officers has him concerned, he said.
Last year, Pan was heckled, cursed at and received death threats. Then, a vocal opponent was arrested after pushing Pan from behind. Weeks later, another protester was charged with two felonies after she allegedly threw a menstrual cup filled with blood onto California state senators.
Pan said it’s hard to watch the ire of those who targeted him shift to public health officials.
“These are public servants who are working hard to keep us safe,” Pan said. “It’s important that we keep them safe as well. They should not be subjected to threats and intimidation. We need to ensure their judgement is free of fear.”
Efforts to reach Farnitano and half a dozen other public health officers on Tuesday were unsuccessful, with some declining to comment and others not responding. Pan said it’s likely that the health officers are concerned they could face additional threats by talking about the effect of personal attacks on them or their families.
“This is becoming more and more of an issue,” said Dr. William Tseng, a physician in San Diego and past president of the San Diego County Medical Society. “I know this is a difficult time for everyone, but we should separate the science from the panic and the fear, and trust in science.”
Asked about their tactics, some activists disputed Tuesday that they are intimidating public health officials.
“Mommies with children and sidewalk chalk are intimidating?” said Heidi Muñoz Gleisner and other protesters in an email. In a video on Facebook, Gleisner added they have been forced to protest outside officials’ homes because they’ve been turned away from public meetings due to coronavirus precautions and that their calls and emails are not being returned.
Protests over mask orders and reopening strategies have popped up across the country, including on Tuesday in Orange County, where county health officer Dr. Nichole Quick resigned last week. At the protest Tuesday, people opposed to wearing masks screamed at those who wanted the county to reinstate its face-covering order. The anti-mask protesters pushed pro-mask people and mocked them for sanitizing their hands, said Luis Aleman of the Orange County Labor Federation, which organized the pro-mask rally.
Orange County has become a hot spot for the pushback against mask orders. Quick issued an order last month requiring everyone in the county to wear masks in public and at work when they are unable to stay six feet apart. Elected officials on the Board of Supervisors criticized the order, while some activists erroneously claimed that wearing masks is more dangerous than not wearing them. During public meetings, opponents of the order targeted their anger at Quick.
Activists skeptical of vaccines are joining with conservatives and other anti-lockdown demonstrators. They contend the coronavirus isn’t dangerous enough to justify stay-at-home orders.
Leigh Dundas, a lawyer who fought against last year’s vaccine bill, rattled off personal information about Quick, including the name of her boyfriend and urged people to go to her home to protest. Speakers at one meeting showed off posters of Quick with a Hitler mustache and swastikas.
After Quick resigned, the county’s new health officer relaxed the mask order amid pressure from the Board of Supervisors.
The Orange County Medical Assn. said Quick’s departure “creates a dangerous precedent.” In addition to Quick, health officers in Butte, Nevada, San Benito and Yolo counties have resigned or retired, while county health directors in Orange and San Bernardino have also retired, according to the California Medical Assn.
The state medical association, which lobbies on behalf of doctors, called the trend concerning. A spokesman for the group said health officials in Alameda, San Diego, Santa Clara and others have also been targeted by protesters aligned with anti-vaccine groups.
“CMA is deeply disturbed by the news that some local health officers, many of whom have been working tirelessly for months, have been subject to unfair and uninformed attacks and have become political targets,” the group said in a statement.
Times staff writers Hannah Fry and Susanne Rust contributed to this report.
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