Dr. Amy Acton, whose position as Ohio’s top doctor made her the target of national praise and searing vitriol throughout the spring COVID-19 pandemic, will no longer lead the Ohio Department of Health.
Gov. Mike DeWine announced her resignation in his Thursday afternoon news conference, adding that she will remain at the capitol as chief health advisor to his administration. Her new role, he said, will involve taking "a bigger-picture look" at public health challenges in the state and continuing to assist with the ongoing coronavirus response effort.
"No one I’ve ever met has more passion for helping people, has more passion for public health, than Dr. Amy Acton," he said. "She always has put the health and safety of Ohioans first and foremost. Her knowledge, her compassion, her determination have set an example for all of us."
Lance Himes, the Ohio Department of Health’s general counsel, will take over as interim director of ODH until a long-term replacement is identified.
Acton's suddenly enhanced public profile during the pandemic transformed her into "a white-coated emblem of her state’s forceful coronavirus response," Washington Post reporter Griff Witte wrote in May. To admirers, she (like other public health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci) became a dependable voice of reason and caution. To Ohioans skeptical of the virus or resentful of the stay-at-home order that arrived bearing her signature alongside DeWine's, she was a symbol of government overreach and alarmism.
Some families sent pictures of their daughters dressed up in lab coats. Others picketed outside her home in Bexley, Ohio. Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill to limit her power, only to have it nixed by the Senate and strongly rebuked by DeWine. The Toledo Blade ran an editorial in her defense.
Acton, standing to DeWine's right as he announced her new role on Thursday, described her position as "an honor of a lifetime" and said she tried to put the rest out of mind as she worked.
“This was new for me,” she said. “But I have to say, for anyone doing this job, you’d be surprised how a lot of that isn’t your focus. For me, the need to protect and save Ohioans was so intense. It had to be a single-point meditation on that task at hand, and it remains that.”
Her position as advisor, she added, will allow her to interact more with average Ohioans and have what she described as deeper, more meaningful conversations with them.
Acton appeared alongside DeWine at almost every one of his COVID-19 news conferences, which ran daily between mid-March and mid-May, presenting each day's COVID-19 diagnosis, death and hospitalization totals while explaining the key medical concepts involved in containing the virus. Her briefings introduced Ohio-at-large to the concepts of "flattening the curve," ensuring that the state's health care system would not be overwhelmed by a single large spike of cases, and the "R-nought" number used to track the number of people infected by each known patient.
She also spoke frankly about weaknesses in known data — how each day's known diagnosis total is an incomplete snapshot limited by the number of tests available, how many COVID-19 patients would likely not become sick enough to receive a test, and how early numbers gathered by the state represented only "the tip of the iceberg."
At times, her predictions were dire: On what would have been Reds Opening Day, she shared an epidemiological model that projected up to 6,000 new infections per day by late April.
Often, they were optimistic. Minutes after DeWine announced her resignation, Acton again thanked Ohioans for practicing social distancing, wearing masks and making changes to their daily lives in order to contain the virus.
"Ohioans, you have saved lives,” she said. “You’ve done this. It is my honor to continue to work on this alongside of you, to witness what you’ve done already, what you’re doing right now to get back into our lives and do so as safely as you can. And I look forward to witnessing what you are going to do next.”
Later, she added: "I am here. I am more determined than ever to advance the health and well-being of Ohioans, and to serve on behalf of the governor."