First came the pandemic, then came the politics: Why Amy Acton quit – The Cincinnati Enquirer

Posted By on June 13, 2020

Dr. Amy Acton resigned as director of the Ohio Department of Health on Thursday, a little more than three months after the state's first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.(Photo: Samuel Greene/The Enquirer)

COLUMBUS Dr. Amy Acton didn't take the job of Ohio's health director to become a heroine in a white lab coat. She simply wantedto raise the profile of public health.

When she was first appointed to the job last February, Actonspoke abouther belief in holistic health, in paying attention to all the factors contributing to wellness and illness, in reforming the state department and working with local health workers.

Instead, she became the face of Ohio's response to the novel coronavirus.For some, she was a steady leader during an uncertain time. For others, she was a heavy-handed bureaucrat who destroyed the state's economy.

None of that was what she wanted.

On Thursday, Acton resigned as the state's health department director, about three months after Ohio's first confirmed COVID-19cases. Her harried routine of waking at 4 a.m. before the sunrise and working late into the night, she said, had become unsustainable. She will continue to receive her $230,000 salary as chief health adviser to Gov. Mike DeWine.

There wasn't one moment that pushed Acton to resign.No politician or angry protester pushed her out, sources close to Acton told The Enquirer. Acton and DeWine did not make themselves available for interviews for this story.

Everyone is tired of the coronavirus.But probably none are more exhausted than the state and local health officials on the front lines of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

It was February 2019 when DeWine announced the health director post, the last addition to his cabinet. Acton, 54, previouslyworked as a community research and grants management officer for the Columbus Foundation and a public health professor at Ohio State University.

DeWine handed the microphone to Acton, dressed in a dark suit, and had to motion her toward the podium.

I really approachhealth in a very holistic way, Acton said. Meaning that the food we eat is our health, where we live, the ZIP Code were born into is our health, all the things that surround us are creating the conditions in which we can lead flourishing lives.

She later appeared with the governor to raise awareness about teen vaping. She spoke at health conferences and events around the state.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signs an order banning groups of 100 or more people, along with Dr. Amy Acton, left, the head of the Ohio Department of Health, during a press conference updating the public on COVID-19 on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. A fifth case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was confirmed in Ohio earlier Thursday. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)(Photo: Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch)

But she didn't become a household name until mid-March, when she assumed a starring role in daily coronavirus briefings broadcast statewide. DeWine talked about the policy; Acton talked about the science.

Soon, Actons encouraging phrases Not all heroes wear capes and I am not afraid; I am determined were printed on t-shirts.A store in Columbus carried candles with her face on them. Children were donning white lab coats and imitating Acton. She was profiled in the Washington Post and Time.

Acton and DeWine received national accolades for their swift response to the pandemic at a time when Washington D.C. was just awakening to its dangers.

Even from the beginning, though, Acton had her critics.

On March 12, she estimated as many as 100,000 Ohioans could be infected with the respiratory disease 1% of the state's population.At the time, Ohio had just a few confirmed cases.

The number shocked Ohioans and drew the ire of national conservative publications.Acton, surprised how quickly it spread,walked it back the next day. She explained her "guesstimate" was based on researchers' assumptions that Ohio had community spread, up to 70% of people would get the virus by the end of the year, and cases would double every six days.

We might not ever know how far that prediction was from the truth.

From there, disdain for the doctor among coronavirus skeptics grew.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton used charts and metaphors to explain the state's response to the novel coronavirus.(Photo: DORAL CHENOWETH, Doral Chenoweth III)

She touted modeling from Ohio State University researchers showing Ohio could have between 2,000 and 10,000 cases each day despite closures and mitigation measures numbers that never materialized.

Limited testing has hamstrung Ohios ability to get a true picture of how many people were infected by the disease. Only Thursday did DeWine announce that anyone who wants to be tested for COVID-19 could access a test.

But without thousands of sick Ohioans filling up the states hospitals, people started to wonder: Was Acton wrong? Should we trust her?

The nature of science especially science involving a new, highly infectious disease relies on observations and adjustments more than unequivocal facts. The nature of public health is if it works, the worst case scenario won't materialize.

Republican politicians, barraged with criticism from constituents wondering why their restaurant, bar or fair cant fully reopen in counties with just a handful of confirmed cases, started to raise questions.

Some took it even farther. Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, called her "Doctor of Doom,"a tyrant and a globalist, whichthe Anti-Defamation League of Cleveland condemned as an anti-Semitic slur. Lawmakers like Rep. Paul Zeltwanger, R-Mason, called on her to resign.

Add to that lawsuits from gyms, amusement parks and concert halls trying to open earlier and proposed laws to restrict state and local health departments' authority.

Conservative social media had another complaint:Acton had volunteered on President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Acton isnot the only member of DeWine's team with Democratic ties, but the detail gnawed at some Republicans.

DeWine's attempts to redirect those frustrations back on himself "the buck stops with me" were only so successful.

As Ohio opened up, Acton appeared at briefings less often and spoke for less time.

Acton's resignation follows recent departures of top health officials in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Arkansas.At least 27 state and local health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April across 13 states,Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press found.

Health officials have been threatened and had their private information made public.

Kat DeBurgh, the executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, said burnout seems to be contributing to many of those decisions.

"Its disheartening to see people who disagree with the order go from attacking the order to attacking the officer to questioning their motivation, expertise and patriotism, DeBurgh told The Associated Press. "Thats not something that should ever happen."

Supporters of Dr. Amy Acton formed a "friend chain" on Acton's front lawn after a few dozen protesters of Ohio's stay-at-home order showed up outside her Bexley home on May 4, 2020. The State Highway Patrol had officers posted at Acton's house.(Photo: Barbara J. Perenic, The Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Acton's experience was no different.Protesters, some armed, showed up at her home in the Columbus suburbs several times. Her neighbors counter-protested in her front yard and put up "Dr. Amy Acton Fan Club" yard signs. Acton was given security detail, an unusual step for a cabinet member.

Actons response to the novel coronavirus was based on her experience as a public health expert and educator. But it was also the response of a mother, sister and wife.

Early in the states response to the novel coronavirus, Acton was on a conference call with local health departments. Acton mentioned that her two sons in San Francisco were beginning to shelter in place, recalled Olivia Biggs, spokeswoman for the Licking County Health Department.

The line got quiet and dark. We almost thought we lost the connection, Biggs said.

When Acton came back on the line, she was sobbing. Soon, the teamin Licking County was tearing up as well which quickly became a problem because coronavirus best practices include not touching one's face, Biggs said.

It was a very human moment, said Biggs, who like many local health department officials has balanced the workload of the pandemic with being a parent. It made me respect her even more.

Acton said Thursday she was essentially doing three jobs:continuing the health department's work on myriad issues such as lead abatement, handling the state's COVID-19 response and advising the governor.

In her new role, she will be able to focus on her primary goal: public health. The agency's general counsel, Lance Himes, will lead the department on an interim basis.

We have all worked this whole team has worked every hour of every single day, Acton said Thursday. I feel with the pandemic and what the governor is doing with promoting the health of Ohioans, I want to give that my complete attention.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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