‘Look out; we’re coming for you’: It’s scary for public health officials on the front lines of the politicized COVID crisis

Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Public servants like [Santa Cruz health officer Dr. Gail] Newel have become the face of government authority in the pandemic. And, in turn, they have become targets for the same loose-knit militia and white nationalist groups that stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, smashing windows, bloodying officers and savagely chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” 

The pushback started with angry emails and voicemails, people who contested the beach closures, the intrusion on personal freedoms. But over time, it ventured further, into language that was personal and terrorizing. Newel remembers threatening letters that stated her address and the names of her children. Others included photographs of the front and back of her home from close range, and messages like “Look out; we’re coming for you.”

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Most local health officials in the U.S. are women and, as the pandemic wore on, the threats took on a clearly misogynistic tone. People used words like “bitch” and “cunt,” and made disturbing veers into sexually explicit references.

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[Newel] said she’ll stick the job out because she’s stubborn that way. But she and her wife have rethought their retirement plans. “If we don’t feel comfortable being out in the community, or if we’re afraid to live here, we’re not going to want to stay,” she said. “And that’s something of a heartbreak.”

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