The potential for violence against health care workers during COVID-19

Recently, the FBI foiled an attempt to kidnap the governor of Michigan.  The entire story reads like a Tom Clancy novel: a group of disgruntled strangers meets and organizes through chat rooms online.  They conduct tactical training in the woods, do surveillance runs of the governor’s house, and even make plans to target law enforcement personnel and blow up a bridge to hamper any response to their attack. The individuals accused of orchestrating this plot reportedly targeted Governor Whitmer because of her state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.  They viewed the lockdown measures the governor put in place as akin to tyranny, which justified the violence they planned to perpetrate. Fortunately, our nation’s law enforcement agencies were able to stop this plot. The whole episode would be entertaining as fiction, but the horrifying fact is that this is reality.  And we in the medical community should take notice: the kind of violence directed against Governor Whitmer could easily be directed against us.

Health care professionals and public health experts have been at the forefront of devising guidelines for coronavirus response. The various measures deployed across the country are heavily influenced by the medical and scientific community’s input and expertise. There is near-unanimous consensus that masks and social distancing are the most effective ways to limit the virus’s spread. As a result, states have adopted various combinations of mask mandates and reduced operating capacity for businesses, and spiking case numbers often lead to curfews and lockdowns. Needless to say, these measures have not been universally popular.  They have caused significant disruptions to everyday life for many Americans.  There have been countless protests, large and small, from people who want to end the various prevention strategies and return to pre-pandemic life. The plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer represents, to date, the most violent extreme of this displeasure.

Yet, even before this plot was uncovered, there were troubling signs that those opposed to coronavirus prevention measures viewed the health care community as the enemy.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, perhaps the most visible and vocal proponent of public health policy, has drawn the ire of many and has even received death threats.  These threats are not just coming from fringe individuals: Steve Bannon, a powerful media figure and former White House official, has actually called for Dr. Fauci to be beheaded.  And it’s not only high profile health officials who are being threatened.  Take the case of Amber Elliot.  She is a nurse in Missouri who stepped up to the job of County Health Director to help formulate the state’s pandemic response. She recently wrote a very disturbing piece in the Washington Post in which she describes the threats made against her and her children, such as “We’re tracking your movements.” “Don’t do something you’ll regret.” “We’ll protest at your house.” Unfortunately, the tactics worked; she recently resigned from her job.

We in the health care professions need to maintain an extra level of vigilance during this time.  Coronavirus cases are beginning to surge again, and there is renewed discussion surrounding the need for another shutdown.  The incoming Biden administration has also signaled its intention to propose even stricter measures to combat the virus. Unfortunately, this can only mean that passions surrounding the coronavirus response will increase, and certain deranged individuals and groups may vent their frustration by targeting us.  If you think there is a credible threat against you or your place of employment, please report it to the authorities.  We must minimize our exposure with smart personal choices and close coordination with law enforcement.

By virtue of our profession, those of us in the health care field become associated with our nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.  The plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer, along with documented threats against public health professionals, are worrying signs that certain people in our society are willing to engage in violence to make their point.  We in health care cannot believe our profession will shield us from such violence.  In fact, it may draw it to us.   This plot that was discovered will, sadly, likely not be the last violent act directed against those who promote public health measures to combat coronavirus.  As we enter the second wave of causes, we need to remain vigilant. Our safety may depend on it.

Gregory Jasani is an emergency medicine resident. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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