By Patty Nieberg, The Associated Press/Report for America
One year into the coronavirus pandemic, Colorado public health officials asked lawmakers to pass a bill that would make it unlawful to disseminate personal information that threatens the safety of health workers and their families.
Under current law, doxing or revealing personal information which poses an imminent or serious threat to law enforcement, human service workers or their families is a Class 1 misdemeanor. The proposed bill would add employees and contractors of the state, county or district public health agencies to the existing law.
Susan Wheelan, director of the El Paso county health department told the state House Judiciary committee that over the past year she has had to drive unmarked vehicles and be escorted by law enforcement due to the community’s hostile reactions toward pandemic-related restrictions.
“We should be able to be proud of the work that we do and the work that we are accomplishing and the service to the community without fear for our safety,” Wheelan said.
She added that team members have found that identifying themselves as public health workers has lead to contentious conversations and anger over the “consequences of this novel virus” and the health department’s role in contact tracing and implementing the state’s policy and restrictions within the county.
Some reactions have been threatening like telling local public health workers they “better call an ambulance” if they show up somewhere and they “will end up in body bags,” Wheelan said.
Across the U.S., public health officials have found themselves at the forefront of battling the pandemic as well as the politicization of health orders and scientific findings on the virus. For health officials in small and rural communities, the threats and safety concerns are even more apparent because they’re often less anonymous than in cities.
Beth Melton, a Routt County Commissioner said despite the county’s attempt to take “public credit and blame” for the coronavirus rules, its local public health officials have still been targets of phone calls, emails and grocery store confrontations about the science of the virus and public policy decisions.
In December 2020, the Routt county public health director was held up in her office by to a group of largely mask-less protestors outside of the municipal court.
“I share these examples really to demonstrate just how exposed our public health staff is in a small community like ours,” Melton said.
The bill passed the House Judiciary committee unanimously and will go to the House floor for debate.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.