BALTIMORE (WJZ) — A new study shows an uptick in the harassment of health officials during the initial phase of the pandemic, which prompted some of them to leave their positions or resign.

The study, titled Pandemic-related workplace violence and its impact on public health officials, March 2020-January 2021, was conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It identified 1,499 unique reports of harassment across local health departments in the United States between March 2020 to January 2021.

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The study found that 57% of local public health departments surveyed had been targets of harassment.

It shows that 222 public health officials left their positions during that time period.

Over one-third of the people who left their jobs (36%) said they experienced some form of harassment, according to the study.

The results of the study were published online today and they are included in the American Journal of Public Health, according to health officials.

It provides scope and context to the departures of public health officials during the first 11 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which created considerable challenges for public health departments.

Various people threatened and harassed them during this time period, which led to reduced job satisfaction and burnout, according to health officials.

Very little was known about the new virus and there were initially no treatments or vaccines available to people to protect them from it.

The study’s findings highlight important concerns about worker safety and well-being in health departments and in public health systems—particularly in times of crisis and discord, health officials said.

They are “a wakeup call for the field” about the importance of prioritizing long-term protection of the public health workforce,” according to Dr. Beth Resnick, the assistant dean for Practice and Training and senior scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School.

The U.S. public health system is built on a network of local and state officials. Some estimates show that there are more than 2,500 local and state public health departments across the United States, according to the study.

“Taking care of the workforce needs to be a fundamental component of the public health infrastructure that doesn’t end when the pandemic does,” Resnick said. 

Researchers who compiled the study drew from two main sources of information: media reports and a survey of local public health departments conducted from October 2020 to February 2021 by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).

The survey identified 1,499 harassment cases, according to health officials.

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Researchers reviewed supplemental materials, too, including public health department news releases, social media accounts, local boards of health meeting minutes, and personal communications with journalists and health department representatives.

They analyzed media responses from 583 local U.S. departments to the NACCHO survey. 

More than half of the 335 local health departments that responded to the survey (57%) identified unique reports of harassment targeting leadership or staff, health officials said.

Most of that harassment happened on social media platforms. Data shows that 296 out of 583 local health departments reported social media harassment.

Of those 296 harassment reports, 194 of them specifically targeted local health department leaders, according to health officials.

Researchers analyzed media reports of threatened departures or actual departures of state and local health officials. They learned that out of 256 cases, there were 120 resignations.

The departures spanned across 42 states and involved 48 state health department officials and 174 local health department officials. 

The harassment and departures documented by researchers have continued beyond the study period, health officials said.

To get a sense of the impact of the harassment and departures on the public health workforce, the research team identified five common themes of health officials’ experience: a sense of being underappreciated, undersupported, villainized, caught up in politics, and disillusioned.   

The study’s authors suggest that training public health officials on how to respond to political and societal conflict could help them reduce the level of harassment they receive when a major health crisis occurs.

This training should include political and societal conflict, improving professional support systems, providing employee support, making investments in long-term public health staffing and infrastructure, and establishing sound reporting systems, according to the authors. 

“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.” 

“Pandemic-related workplace violence and its impact on public health officials, March 2020-January 2021” was written by Julie Ward, Elizabeth Stone, Paulani Mui, and Beth Resnick. 

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The study was supported by the Lipitz Public Health Policy Faculty Award through the Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Social Policy; the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute of Mental Health..

CBS Baltimore Staff