GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Over the last two years, as the world weathered COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, loss and loneliness, political tensions rose and public health officials found themselves the focus of frustrated citizens’ ire.

People accused them of being child abusers and tyrants. Some threatened violence while the chorus grew louder, demanding restrictions be dropped and health officials to be fired. Some health officials are concerned, not only for their own well-being, but the future of the field of public health.

“(It was) the best job in the world. It really was,” Lisa Peacock told News 8. “I used to tell my family that I’m one of those lucky people who found my dream job. I go to work every day really excited about what we’re going to be doing.”

Peacock is the health officer for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan and the Benzie Leelanau District Health Department. Last month, she announced she was resigning from her post because of the stress and abuse being pointed her way.

“I think for local public health officers, we were the face of that in the community. People wouldn’t necessarily be able to state their views directly to the governor or directly to the director of the (Michigan Department of Health and Human Services). But their local health department was the person who picked up the phone when they call and whose face was in the local media. We started to face the brunt of some of that public criticism and public backlash,” Peacock said.

News 8 reached out to every health department across West Michigan for comment on this report. Each department either declined an invitation or didn’t respond.

FACING BACKLASH

When COVID-19 was first identified in Michigan, Peacock says the community was mostly united: isolating and doing their part to avoid spreading the virus. But as the months went on and the state’s lockdown was extended, patience wore thin and the backlash started.

Lisa Peacock (Courtesy: Health Dept. of Northwest Michigan)

“I can hear in my head the voice of a lady who left me multiple voicemails saying things like, ‘You’re a horrible, disgusting person and you deserve to burn in hell.’ I’ve had people posting things on social media like I hate children and that I never should be allowed to be around children ever again,” Peacock said. “You know, I’m a mom of four children, I’m a daughter of 80-year-old parents. These people don’t even know me. And it’s hard to hear that stuff.”

Heading into the fall of 2021, tensions spilled over. Cases were rising, there was a lot of active community spread and Peacock felt their schools still needed a mask mandate.

“We had a wonderful summer, right?” she said. “Everybody was able to do pretty much what they wanted to do. People were happier. We thought things were going in a better direction. And then while preparing for school, we started to see cases tick up again and then really start to surge up again. And locally, we started to have a lot of strain on our health care system, from EMS to hospitals. And that was a big part of why we issued a mask mandate for schools. It was in alignment with the CDC recommendations, the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and supported by hundreds of local doctors and providers.”

“THE WORST DAY THAT I’VE EVER HAD”

After Peacock issued the mask mandate, four of the eight members on the Health Department of Northwest Michigan’s board issued a letter demanding she rescind the order. When she refused, it became the main topic of discussion at the next board meeting.

“We had a board meeting coming up shortly after that on Sept. 7. And that was the worst day that I’ve ever had just in general. It was just a frightening, terrible day,” Peacock said. “It had been kind of encouraged. At that time, some of our board members were posting things on social media, they posted the letter they sent to us, they encouraged people to stand up to the overreaching health officer.

“… The meeting was just absolute chaos. Over four hours of public comment really just made up of attacks on me, just one after another, screaming, yelling, people getting aggressively close to our staff, making kicking motions, holding their phone right up to our faces. It was very disturbing.”

The unease from that fateful meeting still resonates with Peacock.

“There were at least two meetings where termination of my contract has been discussed and voted on in one. And I can’t even tell you how traumatic that is. I mean, you think you’re prepared for it. You know it’s on the agenda but walking into that meeting and having hundreds of (people) there, almost losing your job in front of everyone. Yeah, it’s traumatic,” Peacock said. “And it’s not just traumatic for me, it’s traumatic for my family. It’s traumatic for the staff who are just trying to do their best.”

WIDESPREAD ANIMOSITY

Peacock isn’t the only health official who has faced the backlash. There are several examples here in West Michigan, as well. People against student mask mandates overwhelmed public meetings in Kent and Ottawa Counties, condemning and criticizing health officials. Kent County Health Administrator Adam London stopped appearing in public over fears of violence, accusing one woman of trying to run him off the highway. A meeting in Barry County had to be ended early after a man tried to make a citizen’s arrest of the county’s health officer.

Peacock thinks it’s a sad part of life in 2022: people being isolated while also being given a platform on social media to vent their feelings.

“We are in this kind of time where people are able to have their own beliefs reinforced readily without maybe being exposed to other beliefs. I think some of that certainly has to do with how we get our information now,” Peacock said.

A surge in misinformation and the attacks on the credibility of the press is another factor. Peacock says she’s bewildered why experts are no longer considered experts in their field.

“I have made my decisions based on evidence from credible sources, data that has been gathered about masking, about mitigation measures, about COVID-19, about vaccination,” Peacock said. “But when I’m sharing that information with someone who doesn’t necessarily want to hear it, they just don’t hear it. They don’t want to hear it; they don’t want to see it. They go and find their own data, which is not necessarily credible. I have the background and understanding, and all of my colleagues do, too.

“… We have the ability to recognize what a scientific study is and what makes it a reliable study or maybe one that should be questioned. And it just seems like all of a sudden nobody cares. They don’t want to hear from us even though we are experts in our field.”

Nicholas Derusha, the health officer for the Luce Mackinac Alger Schoolcraft District Health Department and the president of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, says the amount of misinformation being shared during the pandemic has been overwhelming.

“What most of us underestimated was the politicization that occurred with this pandemic. And a lot of that was as a result of misinformation,” Derusha told News 8. “It was pretty early on when we started seeing various pieces of misinformation and initially we would try to do what we could to get correct information out. But in the age of social media and just the speed at which that information would make its rounds, there was no way we could combat the volume of misinformation we were seeing.”

A group of anti-mask protesters address the Board of Health for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan on Sept. 7, 2021. (YouTube/Health Dept. of Northwest Michigan)

“WE HAVE EXPERIENCED TRAUMA”

Both Derusha and Peacock said they have had to reach out to local law enforcement to investigate threats of violence against them or their departments, but no charges have been filed. Derusha believes those cases are tough to prosecute.

“A lot of times when making threats they are walking a very fine line,” Derusha said. “They are saying things that they’re not necessarily going to do it, but what you’re doing is wrong (and you deserve to be punished). It very much comes across as a threat, but it walks a fine line with First Amendment speech.”

Peacock said the threats, combined with the verbal abuse they’ve taken over the last two years, has left her mentally and emotionally exhausted.

“We have experienced trauma over the past year, two years,” Peacock said. “One of the things that we’ve been grappling with is how do you help others and support others who are going through trauma when you are going through the same trauma yourself? And when it’s sustained at this level? Along with everybody else, I’m exhausted. And I’m worried about us. I’m worried about our public health and our health care teams and our police officers and everybody who has had to serve at a higher level during all of this. Even our grocery store workers who had to go to work in fear.”

Peacock says that she knows the last two years have had a major impact on her mental health.

“People have taken pictures of me in public places and I didn’t know they were there. That’s a very intrusive feeling. I have a level of anxiety related to being in public places and being around other people that I’ve never experienced before,” she said. “My confidence certainly has been eroded. And I’ll just be very honest, that those kind of actions from other people have a dramatic impact on one’s mental health. Even when you are a strong, you know I consider myself to be a strong, healthy person. But it’s taken a toll. And ultimately that’s why I’m leaving. We all have a limit to what we can tolerate, and I am at the end of that limit.”

THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC HEALTH

So what’s the future for public health? Will our communities once again embrace these programs? Or will the animosity and distrust take root? Derusha and Peacock want to be optimistic.

“I’ve already seen us lose some good people. Across the state, we’ve certainly lost some good people to the stress of all of this,” Peacock said. “Do I hope that we will see some fresh, new faces that want to change the world and hopefully can? I think so. I watch my children who are young adults in their 20s and I see they have fresh energy and a fresh perspective, and they demand different.”

Said Derusha: “We really need an investment in public health. We needed one pre-pandemic and we need one now more than ever to rebuild that work force and that knowledge base that’s going to be lost.

“… This won’t be the last pandemic that we have, either. Hopefully we won’t see one for a very, very long time, but it’s going to be extremely important that we have a public health system in place that’s able to respond and do the necessary things to keep people safe.”

Derusha says the best-case scenario is that public health officials learn from the last two years and find better ways to connect with their communities.

“I hope what we can do is take an inventory of what’s happened the last couple of years: look at the challenges, the successes, the things that worked, things that didn’t work. And use those pieces of information to help us plan better for the future and to really work at rebuilding that trust that has been lost over the last couple of years and get us to a better place moving forward,” Derusha said.

As for Peacock’s future? That’s still up in the air.

“I still really love public health. I’m really, really, really sad to be leaving this job,” Peacock said. “One of the things I think about being a public health practitioner and caring about the health of your community is that we know what trauma is, we recognize it in other people. To me, I feel like it’s important for me to recognize it in myself and take some time to heal so that I can resume my role as a healer.”