Public health officials need to “bring hearts and souls back” into the fight against COVID-19, Dr. Amy Acton told The New Yorker in a story published Tuesday morning.
The magazine’s article about Acton, who headed the Ohio Department of Health from Feb. 26, 2019, to June 11, 2020, marks the first time she has publicly spoken to any media outlet since her resignation.
In it, Acton argues that the United States needs urgent, compassionate bipartisan leadership to clearly address the ongoing health crisis and the domino-effect crises that grew out of it — “diseases of despair” such as depression and addiction, an increasingly fractured national landscape and political figures’ laissez-faire relationship with the truth.
It’s about kindness, she said, but not softness. The country needs a psychological survival strategy that acknowledges reality: The COVID-19 pandemic will continue well into 2021, regardless of a vaccine or the outcome of the presidential election.
“This isn’t just a ‘be nice’ message,” she texted the article’s author on Sunday. “This is ‘the world’s on fire and we have to fight now!’ ”
Leaders should “lay down the science of how we could lose another two hundred thousand people, just like that,” Acton told the New Yorker, and public figures with political influence should stop “calling to the worst of us in a situation where everyone is vulnerable.”
Much of the story is dedicated to explaining an arc already familiar to most Ohioans: Acton’s entry into the public spotlight after a quiet career in medicine and nonprofits, the acclaim she initially received for her “steely warmth” in daily briefings and the corresponding criticism that emerged from the state’s most conservative voices.
By the time she resigned, worried about protests outside her Bexley home and the possibility of being asked to act against her own conscience, she was among hundreds of American health officials facing unprecedented levels of public criticism. Some of it came from people who claimed fears for the economy; some came from those skeptical of COVID-19’s existence or convinced that business shutdowns were part of a larger government scheme to exert control over the citizenry.
Some even came from the state legislature, which attempted to pass a bill curtailing the health department’s power.
Action doesn’t want her message, arriving on the day of the election, to be construed as “gotcha 11th hour political bull****,” she wrote to the New Yorker reporter.
Instead, she said, she wants it to be a call for better, more honest communication and a political dialogue that does not include expressing the desire to — as one radio host said of Acton after her resignation — punch opponents in the face.
“Kindness is saying, ‘I see the dignity in you at a humanity level,’” she said.
The first person tapped to take over Acton’s old job in September withdrew from consideration almost immediately. The position remains without a permanent occupant.