Health professionals are quitting in droves — can we blame them?

The recent discovery of the “delta plus” COVID-19 mutation has many experts worried, especially now with colder months approaching that will soon drive more people indoors. If it spreads and creates another spike in cases this winter, the nation will face a delta of a different kind that will severely hinder our ability to fight it: Fewer public health and medical workers. 

The exodus is discouraging. A recent study found nearly 20 percent of medical workers have resigned since the start of the pandemic. Another 30 percent have considered leaving. Factors range from burnout to safety concerns to low pay. These dedicated professionals have been working nonstop since the pandemic began, providing care and delivering vaccines. It’s not surprising many have decided they can’t go on.

And it’s not just those on the front line. As of the spring, an estimated 250 public health officials had left the job, many citing the pressures of the pandemic. The vitriol they have encountered due to recommending and implementing mask mandates and other measures to keep the public safe has made them question whether the target on their back is worth the effort.

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Who can blame them? Public health professionals are committed to serving the public good. They worked hard in school, some went on to receive advanced degrees and then entered the workforce. Many traveled the world motivated by a desire to help humankind.

And then came the pandemic. As a nation, we turned to them for guidance on ways to stay safe. They had studied, volunteered and worked to be ready for this moment. What did they get in return? 

Death threats for urging the public to wear masks and practice social distancing. Security details for national figures such as Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciKid Rock releases anti-Biden, anti-Fauci single with a 'Let's go, Brandon' chorus Fauci: Omicron-specific vaccines 'prudent' but may be unnecessary Conservative pundit says YouTube blocked interview with Rand Paul MORE, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been vilified by opponents of masking and other remedies to stem the spread of the virus. In the state of Washington, one public health official lives in constant fear of being spotted when she leaves work and considers taking different routes home each night to prevent people from learning where she lives.  

These devoted, trained professionals have been stalked, harassed and overworked to the point where many are giving up. The passion they once had to help others, which compelled them to a life of public service, has been extinguished by those who have politicized the pandemic and prioritized individual rights over the collective responsibility to work together.  

At a time when we need public health figures to be seen as independent arbiters, armed with data and evidence-based recommendations, vocal opponents have derided them and weaponized the national response. It’s causing many to throw in the towel. All they’ve ever wanted to do is keep America safe. We should be thanking them — not dragging them into the town square and publicly shaming or threatening them. 

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Vaccine opponents are driving away the very people we desperately need to address this crisis and the challenges we will inevitably face in the future. And the attacks are discouraging the next generation of public health advocates from stepping into the arena. 

The same constituencies pressuring these individuals are driving state legislation banning vaccine mandates, which could open a Pandora’s Box regarding other successful vaccine practices that have suppressed past pandemics. Questions could potentially be raised as to whether school systems will be allowed to mandate other immunizations, such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, as a condition of child enrollment. 

There’s a reason we rarely hear of a measles outbreak anymore. We accepted the need to put the country’s health first with the MMR vaccine — and in doing so we greatly reduced transmission. Although there has been a rise in vaccine hesitancy on measles, few have tried to use their constitutional rights as a rallying cry to block MMR requirements for children returning to school (for now).

Modern-day lessons can be learned from the way Americans worked collaboratively to implement the MMR vaccine over the past 50 years. We can beat COVID-19 if we follow the science, trust our public health officials and sacrifice certain personal freedoms for the greater good. 

But we don’t stand a chance if we overwork, underpay, bully or intimidate those in the health community who have dutifully served the nation throughout the pandemic. They deserve our praise, not our wrath.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.