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'We're coming for you': For public health officials, a year of threats and menace

Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. — Dr. Gail Newel looks back on the past year and struggles to articulate exactly when the public bellows of frustration around her COVID-19-related health orders morphed into something darker and more menacing.

Certainly, there was that Sunday afternoon in May, when protesters broke through the gates to her private hillside neighborhood, took up positions around her home, and sang “Gail to Jail,” a ritual they would repeat every Sunday for weeks.

Or the county Board of Supervisors meeting not long after, where a visibly agitated man waiting for his turn at the microphone suddenly lunged at her over a small partition, staring her down even as sheriff’s deputies flanked him and authorities cleared the room.

The letters, emails and cellphone calls that now number in the hundreds and inevitably open with “Bitch,” and make clear people know where she lives and wish her dead.

And that January meeting with Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart, after the vicious mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, when he recommended to a roomful of county officials that deputies do a threat assessment at each of their homes. Newel, who’d already been through the process, casually mentioned a New Year’s resolution to get more exercise and start walking to work. Absolutely not, Hart told her. She wasn’t walking anywhere without an escort.

Newel, 63, is the health officer in Santa Cruz County, a picturesque string of communities hugging California’s rugged Central Coast. In normal years, hers would be a largely invisible job that involves tracking measles outbreaks and STD infections, testing children for lead exposure, and alerting the public to tainted lettuce and unhealthy air. COVID-19 has changed all that, in ways both expected and not. Newel, like health officials across the nation, has been thrust into an unwelcome spotlight and subjected to extreme scrutiny from politicians and the public over mask requirements, business closures and the extended interruption of travel and social gatherings.

 

Some of the dissent was understandable: the shocked response of residents asked to make unprecedented sacrifices during a time of great uncertainty. But in Santa Cruz and many other U.S. communities, legitimate debate has devolved into overt intimidation and threats of violence.

Public servants like 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.”

Over the course of a year, Newel and her boss, Santa Cruz County’s health services director, Mimi Hall, have seen their lives upended for reasons well beyond the exhausting workload that comes with battling a devastating pandemic. Their daily routines now incorporate security patrols, surveillance cameras and, in some cases, personal firearms.

They are public servants who no longer feel safe in public.

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