1 in 5 Americans OK with threatening health officials

One in five Americans thought it was acceptable to threaten or harass public health officials over pandemic business closures as of last summer, research in JAMA Open Network shows.

Why it matters: The antagonism extended beyond science-doubters and people hurting from the effects of COVID-19, to higher earners, political independents and those with more education.

Details: The Johns Hopkins survey found the percentage of adults believing that threatening public health officials was justified rose from 15% to 21% from November 2020 to the summer of 2021.

  • The biggest increases were among respondents who were male, identified as Hispanic and who were Republicans. There were also increases among those earning $35,000-$74,999 and $75,000 or higher.

Go deeper: While former President Trump has been blamed for stocking a divisive political climate and flouting public health measures, researchers found sentiment for harassment and threats continued to rise after President Biden took office and amid optimistic projections about vaccinations and falling case rates.

  • Most respondents who thought attacks on public health officials were justified felt the same way about attacks on politicians, possibly reflecting the view that health officials make inherently political decisions, the researchers said.
  • The researchers cited “pandemic fatigue,” misinformation and a shifting knowledge base about COVID-19 how to avoid it as reasons for the rancor.

The big picture: The targeting of public health officials has exacerbated the stress and anxiety among medical workers.

  • Surveys showed more than half of public health workers experienced at least one adverse mental health condition in the spring of 2021, and more than half reported at least one post-traumatic stress disorder symptom between September 2021 and January 2022.

Our thought bubbles: Restoring public trust in health officials will require plenty of engagement with many different groups.

  • But the researchers noted there’s so far been little evidence of successful bridging partisan communication divides.

The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Civic Life and Public Health Survey was fielded from Nov. 11-30, 2020 and July 26-Aug. 29, 2021 and included 1,086 adults.

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