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California

L.A. County health director receives death threats over coronavirus rules

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said she's received threats since March.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As local health officers have been thrust into the spotlight amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number have become the focus of personal attacks, including Los Angeles County’s Barbara Ferrer.

On Monday, as Los Angeles County announced it would reduce news briefings on the virus to once a week, Ferrer revealed details of written attacks and physical threats she has received over the last three months in response to the county’s stay-at-home orders.

The death threats began last month, she said. During a public briefing streamed on the county’s Facebook page, the health director said that her husband, children and colleagues noticed that someone had posted a message in the comments section that “casually” suggested she should be shot.

Ferrer did not say what prompted the threat or when the message was posted. But on May 13 — the day she suggested during a Board of Supervisors meeting that the county would not fully reopen until Fourth of July weekend, setting off a torrent of complaints — more than 1,000 comments were posted on the briefing’s video.

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One person said Ferrer “needs to stick her wet finger in a light socket,” and another accused a different commenter of threatening to kill health officials, though that post appears to have since been deleted.

Public health officials throughout the state have received such threats and have been targeted because of restrictions implemented to slow the spread of the virus.

County public health officers are increasingly facing threats from anti-vaccine protesters critical of mask requirements amid the coronavirus crisis.

Ferrer said attacks against her have been received via email, public posting and letters since March, when the county enacted its safer-at-home order. She said that’s one reason why she’s handled the coronavirus briefings on her own: “to shield the extraordinary team at L.A. County Public Health from these attacks.”

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“It is deeply worrisome to imagine that our hardworking infectious disease physicians, nurses, epidemiologists and environmental health specialists or any of our other team members would have to face this level of hatred,” she said in a statement.

In L.A. County, the number of COVID-19 infections has surged past 86,000 and the death toll is more than 3,100. The county makes up the bulk of the state’s total number of infections and deaths.

“We did not create this virus,” Ferrer said about herself and the other health officials who have been setting the counties’ reopening rules.

In Contra Costa County, Public Health Officer Chris Farnitano said in a podcast hosted by state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) that he knows of several health officers across the state who are receiving additional security following threats.

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“We have stepped up security at our office and around my home,” Farnitano said on Pan’s podcast, “Putting the Public Into Health,” which was posted Monday. “It’s troubling.”

Anti-mask activists have twice protested outside Farnitano’s home in recent weeks.

“My predecessor who had been in the role for 30 years expressed how he had never faced anything similar to this,” Farnitano said. “This is not something we expect as health officials trying to just make decisions for the public’s health benefit.”

In noting the continued fight against the outbreak, Ferrer reminded residents that face coverings are one of the best tools available.

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A statewide requirement was set Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a week after Orange County rescinded its face mask order. That decision came after the county’s health officer resigned following attacks and death threats similar to what Ferrer has received.

Ferrer said decisions have been driven by data, not politics.

“As public health officials, we try hard not to be influenced by partisan politics or public sentiment — we must follow the science in order to save lives,” she said. “And the science says if we don’t change the way we go about our daily routines, we could pay for it with our lives or the lives of others around us.”

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Times staff writer Melody Gutierrez contributed to this report.


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