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Public Health Officials Encounter Harassment And Threats For Using Contact Tracing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some public health workers are encountering harassment, even threats of violence, as they try to contain the coronavirus. Will Stone begins his report in a rural county of Washington state.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Lauri Jones says her job isn't usually controversial. She's run a small health department in eastern Washington for 17 years, and most people think of it as the place to get a septic permit or birth certificate.

LAURI JONES: We kind of sit here under the radar.

STONE: Now she's front and center, telling businesses to stay closed, calling up people who might be infected, sometimes asking them to quarantine.

JONES: For the first time, people are hearing terms like contact tracing, case investigation. Those frighten them for some reason.

STONE: Jones tries to break it down. She tells them it's a lot like what she does when someone gets salmonella. But she says it's been hard to get that message out on how contact tracing actually works.

JONES: A lot of people rely on social media for their information and misinformation.

STONE: This became all too clear for Jones last month. One local household was supposed to be isolating because a family member had tested positive. Jones had called them up to remind them everyone had to stay home. But someone in the community took that message very differently, that Jones was tracking all their movements.

JONES: Then the accusations started flying that we were spying, that we had put them under house arrest.

STONE: And what began as a small town spat became a widely shared Facebook post warning that people were being watched. Next came the online threats.

JONES: Calling me out by name, threatening to reveal my address, and even a call to arms. That kind of scared me.

STONE: The police told Jones to be careful. She bought security cameras for her home.

JONES: So I had a few real sleepless nights.

STONE: The coronavirus pandemic has made public health officials like Jones more visible than ever. But they've also come under attack, especially from people who believe the government is exploiting the pandemic to expand its powers.

JONES: We have the extremists who are being fed whatever information that isn't accurate, and now we feel like targets.

STONE: In Washington state, health officials have been trying to correct misinformation on social media, like the rumor that quarantine means being locked up somewhere. In the next county over, Marc Straub is on the public health board. He says he's also getting lots of questions about the government's role in a pandemic, like concerns about medical privacy.

MARC STRAUB: It's important that people understand that this is not going to be forced upon them, that these are voluntary measures.

STONE: The fears and sometimes the backlash is happening around the country. In Ohio, there have been angry gatherings outside the home of the state health director. And in Colorado, anger over a stay-at-home order even forced one local health department to close up some buildings and ramp up security.

JOHN DOUGLAS: And we've had protests at our offices and threats of a shooting civil war, even a couple of personal threats.

STONE: That's Dr. John Douglas, who runs the Tri-County Health Department. In fact, a survey of public health officials from all over Colorado found about two-thirds of them had been threatened in some way.

DOUGLAS: We're desperately trying to scale up contact tracing, but we're having to divert funding to hire security guards.

STONE: Dr. Marcus Plescia is the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. He's been watching distrust of public health grow, and he's worried.

MARCUS PLESCIA: Some of these decisions are not popular. Some of them are decisions that the public health officials would perhaps rather not make. But they are trying to do the right thing. They're trying to keep people safe.

STONE: But he says for public health strategies like contact tracing to actually work, they need their community's trust now more than ever.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAUSSIAN CURVE'S "T.O.R") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.