Growing Animus Toward Contact Tracing Puts Local Health Officials and the Public at Risk

County health officials across the nation say they are encountering anger, hostility, and mistrust from the public that could upend reopening efforts and hasten the spread of coronavirus.

We’ve already seen this phenomenon play out with health officers like Orange County’s Dr. Nichole Quick and Ohio’s Dr. Amy Acton. Both resigned amid rising pressure—even physical threats—from members of the public. Quick and Acton were targeted over face masks and stay-at-home orders. But as states reopen, local officials are encountering the same hostility against contact tracing too.

Okanogan, Washington Community Health Director Lauri Jones had to get security cameras installed at her home after threats against her began circulating online. They were kicked off by her attempt to contact a coronavirus patient and advise them to self-isolate for 14 days per CDC guidelines.

“The accusations started flying, that we were spying [on that family], that we had put them under house arrest," Jones told NPR. "It got totally twisted and people thought we violated their civil liberties."

Theresa Anselmo, Executive Director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, said 70% of her members have received threats and several local health directors in the state have resigned.

Contact tracing efforts will increase as states fully reopen. Experts say those efforts are key to returning to some sense of normalcy. With social media, conspiracy theorists, and some right wing news outlets fanning the flames, health officials worry the mistrust and hostility could get much worse. If it gets bad enough, those tasked with preventing the spread of the virus could lose one of their strongest tools.