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Threats over coronavirus orders target public health officers

CDA this week took a support position on legislation that would help to protect public health officers in California from threats and attacks by requiring that their personal information be kept confidential. 

Sen. Richard Pan, (D-Sacramento), who is also a practicing pediatrician, introduced Senate Bill 483 on July 1 in response to the escalating personal threats made against public health officers throughout the state by individuals who want officers to reverse orders intended to protect the public during the pandemic. 

“Public health officials shouldn’t have to choose between their own safety and livelihood and the public’s health,” stated Sen. Pan in the news release announcing the bill. “SB 483 will protect our health officers so they can focus on their job and protect the public.”

At least eight public health officers or officials in California have resigned or retired since mid-April, according to the press release.

Some of them, including former Orange County Chief Health Officer Nichole Quick, MD, did so following threatening incidents. At an Orange County supervisors board meeting in June, an attendee verbally disclosed Dr. Quick’s home address and said she intended to bring protestors to Quick’s doorstep. The group objected to Quick’s order requiring the use of masks in public to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

A CalMatters article published last month highlighted similar experiences, such as that of a Northern California health officer who reported receiving death threats by email. Protesters also showed up at the health officer’s home. Citing safety concerns, the officer asked to remain anonymous. 

The resignations along with the threats and even armed protests that have sometimes preceded them have received wide coverage in local media and national media reporting on incidents across the U.S. Just last week, the opinion piece “Stop threats against California’s public health officers” by the presidents of the Contra Costa and Santa Clara County medical associations appeared in the Mercury News.

Sen. Pan has emphasized that public health officers must be able to make recommendations based on science and without intimidation.

Bill prohibits public access to officers’ home addresses 

Under current state law, the public is prohibited from accessing the home addresses of members of the Legislature, city councils and boards of supervisors through Department of Motor Vehicle records.

SB 483, sponsored by the California Medical Association, would extend the prohibition of disclosure to include public health officers’ home addresses. 

The public health emergency declared in March by Gov. Gavin Newsom remains in place, and from Alameda to Orange County, COVID-19-positive cases and hospitalizations continue to resurge. During such emergencies, public health officers, as trained medical professionals, have the legal authority and the duty to issue local orders that are stricter than state orders as necessary to protect the public. They can order residents to stay at home, wear face masks, quarantine and practice social distancing. They can also order businesses to temporarily shut down.

In a statement supporting Pan’s bill, CDA President Richard Nagy, DDS, said:

“At a time when hospitals are straining to care for an increased number of COVID-19-positive patients, adequate supplies of PPE are not yet available and essential health care workers are placing themselves at great risk every day, most Californians need and want to be able to rely on public health experts for informed guidance. CDA applauds Senator Pan for introducing this bill to help ensure our public health officers can safely remain in their crucial posts to confidently perform their job ― preventing or slowing diseases that pose a threat to the public.”

Read more about CDA’s work on major issues and priorities for the remainder of 2020, including COVID-19’s impacts on dentistry.

Find COVID-19 news and resources for dentists in the newsroom and COVID-19 Information Center. Also visit CDA’s Back-to-Practice Resource Center for training, checklists and other resources to help dentists and their teams practice safely.

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