Threats and outbursts directed at local health officials prompt many to stop

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“In all my years, I’ve never seen it so divisive and controversial,” said Rae Dick, Westford’s chief health officer, who has worked in the department for 16 years.

Dick said a call to his service earlier this winter stands out. The caller, hurling obscenities, said an anti-mask group was going to leak personal information and home addresses of members of the city’s board of health and get people to camp outside their homes.

It was “certainly unnerving,” said Dick, who is also president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association. The information was released but the sit-in never materialized. Now a group is circulating an online petition calling for the entire health board to resign.

The Baker administration announced earlier this month that masks will no longer be required in Massachusetts schools starting Feb. 28, just as tens of thousands of students will return to class after the school vacation week when many will travel. More recently, the administration relaxed its recommendation on indoor masking in public places, saying it’s only necessary for certain groups of people, including those who are unvaccinated or at risk of serious illness.

The administration said town and city leaders could set their own masking rules. Local officials find it a blessing and a curse.

In Abington, Marty Golightly, the city’s health director, resigned late last month after weeks of testy backlash with residents who opposed the city’s indoor mask rules. Golightly, who still lives in Abington, said in a brief phone call that he was just trying to get on with his life and declined to comment further.

Across Massachusetts, the exodus of beatings and burnouts over the past year includes health directors from Framingham, Oak Bluffs and East Longmeadow, which also saw two of its three health board members resign in amid debates over masks. The town of Buckland in Franklin County also has lost a board member.

The rising tide against local health departments and health board members, many of whom are volunteers, is not unique to Massachusetts.

“These threats have taken their toll: at least 300 public health department heads have left their posts since the pandemic began, affecting 20% ​​of Americans,” wrote Lori Tremmel Freeman, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. an October letter to the United States Attorney General.

“In many cases they were verbally abused and physically threatened. Their personal information has been shared, their families targeted and their offices attacked,” she wrote.

Cheryl Sbarra, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, witnessed these tensions several weeks ago when she was invited to an Abington health board meeting that was abruptly adjourned when residents upset with the city’s mask ordinance continued to speak loudly out of use. and intrusively film the session.

“We had to wait in the council of the health room [after residents left] because the tempers were so high,” Sbarra said. “And then they were waiting for us in the parking lot because they wanted to continue this rant against public health.”

She said she heard from at least one western Massachusetts health director who received threatening calls in the middle of the night. And she heard from several others unsure of their legal authority to extend mask warrants past the end of February and worried about public anger if they did.

In Lexington, where the tenor of public debate has been largely civil, the health board recently opted to keep the city’s indoor mask mandate until March 15 for an extra cushion of time in case there is a spike. of COVID cases after the school holiday week.

This decision did not please some. In the space of just 40 minutes the next day, council president Wendy Heiger-Bernays received a barrage of angry emails from disgruntled residents.

Increasingly, the council has been tested trying to “strike a balance between the rights of loud people and the rights of those who don’t talk,” said Heiger-Bernays, who is also a professor of environmental health at the School. of Public Health from Boston University.

In Salem, public health officials have been the target of anti-Semitic threats and messages in recent weeks. Dr. Jeremy Schiller, chairman of the Salem Board of Health, said the once sporadic emails became daily hate messages when the city reinstated a mask mandate and enacted a proof-of-vaccination requirement for many businesses in December. Many of the emails he received compared the city’s COVID rules to the Holocaust, while some contained anti-Semitic statements against him.

Two days before the council was to debate end-in-February demands, protesters gathered outside his home.

Schiller also learned that his name was being shared on far-right websites with anti-Semitic remarks. Voicemails had also been left with the department, citing anti-Semitism and threats. An image of a Jewish star, similar to those worn on armbands to identify Jews during the Holocaust, was emailed to a member of the health department.

“What makes me feel most in danger is not these people,” Schiller said. “What worries me and makes me feel unsafe is people who shut up or don’t think it’s a big deal or don’t support the fight against this stuff.”

In Northampton, Jewish public health officials were also inundated with anti-Semitism. Joanne Levin, chair of the Northampton Board of Health, said days after the board discussed a mask mandate in August, posters with her face and name were hung around the town. “Meet your local bully,” the posters read.

In December, Levin was confronted during the public comment period of a meeting via Zoom. When the board asked someone to speak, the voice was synthesized and robotic, Levin said. Then the person changed their profile picture to a swastika with writing below that read “Jews won’t replace us.”

“First it was a shock, then I was so sad that people could be so misinformed and embrace hate,” Levin said. “My fear is that they will then be empowered to speak out and commit acts of violence.”

In Westford, during an hour-long debate Thursday night over the city’s mask mandate, a health board member described his frustration after months of residents accusing him and other council members , of being “liars, case-counting bureaucrats, [and] tyrannical,” for enacting the mandate earlier.

“I was very uncomfortable with the anger and lies being told about me and my fellow board members,” Susan Hanly said.

“I tried very hard to live by the adage: ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated,’” she said. “Or as Martin Richards, the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon bombing, put it, ‘No more hurting people. Peace.'”

The council then voted 3-2 to immediately lift the city’s mask mandate, but extend it until March 7 for its schools.


Kay Lazar can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Jessica Bartlett can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ByJessBartlett.

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