A growing percentage of U.S. adults, even those who trust science, said harassing or threatening public health officials over COVID-19 business closures was justified, according to a new study of public opinion surveys conducted during two phases of the pandemic.
Attacks on public health officials reached unprecedented levels during the height of the pandemic, with officials describing everything from harassment and threats over the telephone to encountering armed protestors at their homes.
“We can see the human cost of this harassment,” said Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Dean Colleen L. Barry. “Public health workers are leaving the profession in large numbers and those who have chosen to stay report dealing with mental health consequences.”
Barry is the senior author of the study. Rachel Topazian of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is the lead author and co-authors include Weill Cornell Medicine postdoctoral researcher Rachel Presskreischer as well as Beth McGinty, Hahrie Han, and Adam Levine of Johns Hopkins and Kelly Anderson of the University of Colorado.
An article about the research – “Americans’ Beliefs about Harassing or Threatening Public Health Officials During the COVID-19 Pandemic” – was published July 29 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open.
More than 1,000 U.S. adults participated in the surveys, conducted in November 2020 and again in July and August 2021.
“We did not observe differences between Democrats and Republicans in November 2020, immediately following the polarized presidential election,” the researchers concluded. “But by July to August 2021, there was a 15 percentage point gap in believing harassment was justified between Democrats and Republicans, and we observed double-digit increases over time in the estimated share of Republicans believing harassing and threatening were justified.
“The polarization of social distancing, masking and COVID-19 vaccine uptake has been well documented. But our findings reveal increasingly partisan attitudes toward public health officials themselves.”
Survey respondents in 2021 who believed health officials were reasonable targets of threats increasingly included higher earners, political independents, those with more education and those most trusting of science. Among those with high trust in science, the researchers observed an 8 percentage point increase in likelihood of believing threats were justified.
“Earlier in the pandemic, antagonism toward public health officials was concentrated among those doubting science and those most negatively impacted by the pandemic,” Topazian said. “That still holds, but our findings reveal a shift toward such beliefs within more economically advantaged subgroups and those more trusting of science.”
The researchers said “pandemic fatigue” may be a factor in the trends. “It is a phenomenon in which even those who support public health guidelines lose motivation for adherence, due to the prolonged nature of the pandemic, shifting guidance and escalating opportunity costs,” McGinty said.
To help place the findings in context, a commentary about the study by Sarah Gollust of the University of Minnesota was published by the JAMA Open Network. She noted other studies indicate growing support for political violence and increased tolerance of harassing and threatening politicians.
“These data collectively suggest that the endorsement of violence against public health officials is a symptom of a broader illness in contemporary American politics, with potentially grave consequences,” Gollust wrote. “What can be done? Given the threat to the public’s health posed by a depleted and demoralized workforce, investment in the workforce and in strategies to neutralize antagonism among the public are needed.”
The researchers say that will take a communications approach tailored to multiple groups, including those skeptical of public health for ideological reasons, those most affected by public health policies, and those who view public health positively but are worn down by the lengthy crisis.
The stakes are high, Gollust said, because “we must better protect those workers on whom our collective health and well-being depends.”
Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.